As We Forgive Our Debtors: A Sermon on Forgiveness

Here’s the message on forgiveness that I delivered this morning at the Church of the New Jerusalem in Dawson Creek. Sermon audio is available here.

Readings are  Ezekiel 33:10-20; Matthew 18:21-35; and the following excerpt from Arcana Coelestia 9014:

It is believed by many within the church that the forgiveness of sins is the wiping out and washing away thereof, as of filth by water; and that after forgiveness they go on their way clean and pure. … But be it known that the case with the forgiveness of sins is quite different. The Lord forgives everyone his sins, because He is mercy itself. Nevertheless they are not thereby forgiven unless the man performs serious repentance, and desists from evils, and afterward lives a life of faith and charity, and this even to the end of his life. When this is done, the man receives from the Lord spiritual life, which is called new life. When from this new life the man views the evils of his former life, and turns away from them, and regards them with horror, then for the first time are the evils forgiven, for then the man is held in truths and goods by the Lord, and is withheld from evils. From this it is plain what is the forgiveness of sins, and that it cannot be granted within an hour, nor within a year. That this is so the church knows, for it is said to those who come to the Holy Supper that their sins are forgiven if they begin a new life by abstaining from evils and abhorring them.

Then his lord, calling him, says to him, “Thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt, because thou didst implore me. Oughtest thou not also to have had mercy on thy fellow servant, even as I had mercy on thee?” (Matthew 18:32-33)

Today we’re talking about forgiveness. And whenever we talk about forgiveness, we have two things to talk about: first, our need to be forgiven by God, and second, our need to forgive others. And as we heard illustrated in the parable we read earlier, these two things are intimately connected. And this connection between forgiving and being forgiven is a central teaching of the New Testament. In the Lord’s prayer, we pray “forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors” – and it is this aspect of the prayer that the Lord chose to focus on when He taught the prayer to His disciples. The central teaching here is this: we need to be forgiven, and if we are to be forgiven, we must forgive.

Now, when we first hear this, it can sound as if we need to do something to earn God’s forgiveness. But the Lord in His Word makes it clear that this is not the case. We cannot earn forgiveness, we will never deserve forgiveness – and yet, God forgives us anyway. God by His nature is merciful, and He has always revealed that He wants to forgive us. In the words of Psalm 86, He is “good, and pardons, and abundant in mercy to all those who call upon Him.” We read His words in Ezekiel: “I have no delight in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn back from his way and live” (Ezekiel 33:11). Think of the implications. That means that God does not hate you, and never has. He does not hold your past sins against you. He does not want to punish you – in the words of Lamentations 3:33, “He does not afflict from His heart [or willingly] nor make sorrowful the sons of men.”

Notice what happens in the parable we read earlier: the man asked his master for forgiveness, and the master simply gave it to him, no questions asked. We see other examples throughout the New Testament illustrating the Lord’s willingness to forgive. In Matthew 9:2, we read that Jesus said to a paralytic man who had done nothing at all to earn forgiveness – “Son, be of good cheer; thy sins are forgiven thee.” When He had saved the woman caught in adultery from being stoned to death, He said to her “neither do I condemn thee; go and sin no more” (John 8:11). The forgiveness came first, then the command to sin no more. God is constantly forgiving, because God is love. This is affirmed in the passage from Arcana Coelestia that we read earlier – “The Lord forgives everyone his sins, because He is mercy itself” (AC 9014).

Now we know there are qualifiers, we know there’s more to the story than this, and we’re going to talk about that. But first, take a moment to let that sink in: the sins of your past are already forgiven in God’s eyes. We might have skeletons in our closets – secret shame that may go back even to our childhood. You need to know this: God forgives you. Let him forgive you. Experience that – whatever you have done – that is forgiven. God loves you. And when we turn to the Lord and let go of the sins of our past, he puts them away. As we read in Ezekiel, “If the wicked return the pledge, repay that which he had robbed, walk in the statutes of life, without doing perversity; his life he shall live, he shall not die. All of his sins that he has sinned shall not be mentioned to him” (Ezekiel 33:15-16).

That passage illustrates God’s incredible mercy. But it also brings up something else: that while God is forgiving, for that to actually have any effect, we must turn away from our sin. Think of it this way – if you stole something twenty years ago, and have acknowledged that sin to God and turned away from it, God does not hold it against you. But if we love stealing, and refuse to admit that it is wrong – even then, God does not reject us, but we have rejected Him; and from the perspective of someone who has rejected God and chosen to make their bed in hell, it feels as if it is God who has done the turning away and rejecting. It’s like the sunset – it looks like the sun is sinking down, when in reality it is the earth turning away. We read in Isaiah 59:2, “Your iniquities have separated you from your God; And your sins have hidden His face from you.” It is our own sins that hide God’s face from us. God Himself does not turn away; as the apostle James wrote, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning.” (James 1:17)

And so while God is constantly forgiving our sins, for that to have an effect, we have to actually allow our sins to be forgiven. In the original Greek language, that word for “forgiveness” literally means something like “sent away.” Another way of translating it into English is to “remit,” and we talk about the “remission of sins.” And so while God is always willing to “put away” our sins from His remembrance, that has no real effect in our lives unless we are willing to actually put away sin from our lives, and to allow God to “send them away” from our hearts. That’s the remission of sins.

How does that happen? The simple answer is, it happens by confessing our sins to the Lord, and repenting of them. The apostle John wrote in his first epistle “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9). Throughout the Lord’s Word, and particularly the New Testament, we see the connection between repentance and remission of sins. In the first chapter of Mark we read of John the Baptist, “John was baptizing in the wilderness, and preaching the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins” (Mark 1:4); and in the last chapter of the Gospel of Luke we read of the risen Lord declaring to His disciples “that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations” (Luke 24:47).

We need to repent in order for our sins to actually be removed. But there is one more key here. Those who were baptized by John needed to be baptized again in the Lord’s name, even though both baptisms were for repentance and the remission of sins. That’s because the baptism of John represented a more outward repentance, a repentance primarily in words and actions. We can do this repentance seemingly as if from our own power. And repenting on this external level is absolutely necessary to prepare the way of the Lord. But to perform true repentance, on every level of our being, we need the Lord Jesus Christ. Listen to this passage from True Christian Religion: “As to the baptism of John, it represented the cleansing of the external man; while the baptism of Christians at the present day represents the cleansing of the internal man, which is regeneration. Without faith in Christ the external man cannot become internal” (True Christian Religion 690). It is only by the Lord dwelling within us that we will ever be able to truly change not just our words and our actions, but our minds and our hearts as well. The earliest Christians recognized this. The book of Acts records the words of the apostle Peter; he said, “God has exalted [Jesus] to His right hand to be Prince and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins” (Acts 5:31). Notice that – not only is forgiveness the gift, but repentance itself is the gift given by the power of the Lord, the power He took on by uniting the human and the Divine within Himself, a power symbolized by “sitting at the right hand” of the Father. And listen to these words of Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them” (2 Corinthians 5:19). The purpose of the Lord’s coming was to reconcile the world to Himself. The order here is important – God was not reconciling Himself to the world, since He loved the world, as we know from John 3:16; but He was reconciling the world to Himself, that is, offering to live within us so that He could turn us back to Himself.

And so when we repent – shunning evils as sins as if from our own power, while acknowledging that every effort is entirely from the Lord with us – we start to see that sins actually begin to be remitted, that is, removed from our hearts, put aside, put to sleep. We find selfish loves being replaced by unselfish ones. The book New Jerusalem and Its Heavenly Doctrine lists signs that sins are being remitted or removed; it says, “They whose sins are remitted, perceive a delight in worshiping God for the sake of God, and in serving their neighbor for the sake of their neighbor…; they are unwilling to claim merit by anything of charity and faith; they shun and are averse to evils such as enmities, hatreds, revenges, adulteries, and the very thoughts of such things with intention” (NJHD 167).

And this is why the Lord emphasized so strongly that we can only be forgiven if we ourselves forgive. Having our sins removed means acting from the Lord’s spirit within us, rather than acting from our own fleshly desires. It means acting as He would act. The Lord commanded His disciples to love one another as He had loved them. He taught that in order to be sons of God, we must love our enemies and do good to those who hate us, praying for those who have hurt us, just as God does good to the evil as well as the good (Matthew 5:44-45). Our sins are not forgiven unless we forgive as He forgives, because if we are unforgiving, it means we are still clinging to our own proud, unmerciful nature, our corrupt old will, rather than allowing ourselves to be transformed into vessels for Him, into His image and likeness. And it is that corrupt old will that is to be put away in the remission of sins.

But if we DO allow ourselves to be transformed, then we do learn to forgive. Now, what does it mean for us to forgive? First of all, we are to forgive as the Lord forgives. God wills that everyone turn away from his evils and be saved, and so to forgive means to hope that everyone – even those who have wounded us deeply – will turn to the Lord and experience eternal happiness. Now, coming to that attitude requires a struggle, because our old man burns for vengeance. All we can do is fight with all our might, and pray to the Lord with all our heart that He will help us forgive. We can choose to withhold our tongues from slander. We can choose to put aside the thoughts of hatred that come unbidden into our minds. We can choose not to lift up our hands to strike back when we are struck on the cheek. We make those decisions, as if from our own power; and we pray to the Lord to take care of the deeper things, to change our hearts. We are called to forgive far and above what seems reasonable – not seven times, but seventy times seven; and it is only by His power that we could ever hope to do so.

And yet, just as the fact that God forgives us immediately does not free us of the need to repent, so our forgiveness of others does not mean we simply ignore the sin that they are actively committing. Remember, we are called to care for their eternal welfare – and if we care about their eternal welfare, then we will want them to repent, for their own sakes as well as for the sakes of those they are harming. We forgive immediately and unconditionally in the sense of wishing what is best for them, but we do not simply let evil go unchecked. In the passage we read from Matthew, the Lord put no conditions on forgiveness – He simply said to forgive up to seventy times seven. But listen to what He said on another occasion, as recorded in the gospel of Luke: “Take heed to yourselves; and if thy brother sin against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him” (Luke 17:3). There is a sense in which forgiveness is conditional, that it must go along with repentance. When we see a brother behaving in a harmful way we are commanded to rebuke them – but always with the hope that it will lead to repentance, always with a willingness to welcome them back into fellowship if they do repent.

Now it is vital to remember that when it comes to repentance – as with anything else – we cannot know someone else’s heart with any kind of certainty. We have to make judgment calls based on our own observations. Even if a criminal seems truly repentant after serving one year of a twenty-year sentence, it is important for society – and quite possibly for that prisoner – that he continue to serve more of that sentence. Being spiritually forgiven does not take away the natural consequences for our actions. And this is true beyond the scope of civil law. If someone has admitted to a very recent history of embezzling, we may choose not to elect that person as church treasurer, for that person’s sake as well as the church’s sake, even if we believe that in their hearts they have repented. The Lord said “judge not,” and in His Word He is clear that He alone knows the hearts of the children of men; but He also commanded His disciples to “judge righteous judgment” (John 7:24) and to be “as prudent as serpents” (Matthew 10:16). There are cases where, even if we have forgiven someone, we must choose to be separated from them based on what is prudent. Think of the wife who has decided that the safest thing for herself and her child is to be separated from a physically abusive husband, because she judges based on his previous actions that he is not safe to be around. Now, that could be done from a place of hatred and vengeance – for example, if the wife leaves him because she wants to hurt him, to make him feel miserable and lonely. But that same action could also be an act of mercy, and even forgiveness, if she is doing it for the physical protection of herself and her child, and for the sake of the spiritual welfare of a husband who might otherwise never seek help.

And so forgiveness and mercy do not always look like forgiveness and mercy. What determines it is the motivation behind it. When a person is engaged in open, active, unrepentant evils, there may be serious grounds for separation from society, whether by legal means or other means. As we read in Matthew 18:15-17, the Lord Himself laid out guidelines for seeking reconciliation with someone caught up in evil, but in the end, He advises a kind of separation if the person will not repent. We read, “If thy brother sin against thee, go and reprove him between thyself and him alone; if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. And if he shall not hear, take with thee yet one or two, that in the mouth of two witnesses or three every saying may be established. And if he neglect to hear them, tell it to the church; but if he also neglect to hear the church, let him be to thee as a gentile and a tax-collector.” Now, those words at the end are intentional. Gentiles and tax-collectors were on the outside of society, and so there is a kind of separation suggested here. But the Lord in His ministry also reached out to gentiles and tax-collectors; and in the same way, we are still called to care about the souls even of those who have been separated from us. The apostle Paul wrote in his second epistle to the Thessalonians, “If anyone does not obey our word in this epistle, note that person and do not keep company with him, that he may be ashamed. Yet do not count him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother” (2 Thessalonians 3:13-15). When we are in charity from the Lord, we do not view those in evil as our enemy, even if we see a need to separate ourselves from them, or separate them from society; Arcana Coelestia 8598 says,

They who are in zeal fight, yet not from any enmity and hostility, but rather from charity;… and therefore when zeal fights it merely removes those who are in falsity and evil, to prevent them from hurting those who are in good and truth…. For from the charity that is in it, zeal wishes well even to those who are in evil and falsity, and also does well to them so far as they do not injure the good.

The purpose of all restraint and punishment is an ultimate hope for reconciliation, a hope that we may live with our brothers and sisters in mutual love and charity.

This is the Lord’s hope: that we be reconciled to Him, and in Him, that we may be reconciled to one another. Therefore, when we come Him in prayer, He first commands that we seek to be reconciled to those we have harmed, and to forgive those who have harmed us. In doing this, we experience the remission and forgiveness of our own sins, as we forgive those who have sinned against us. The Lord said, “If therefore thou offer thy gift upon the altar, and there remember that thy brother has anything against thee, leave there thy gift before the altar, and go; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift” (Matthew 5:23-24). And He said as well, “And when you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive, that your Father also who is in the heavens may forgive you your trespasses” (Mark 11:25).

(Image is “Parable of the Wicked Servant” by Domenico Fetti. Taken from Wikipedia.)

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