THE BUSINESS OF FORGIVENESS
Dr. Charles Franklin DeVane, Jr., Pastor
Lake Hamilton Baptist Church
Hot Springs, Arkansas
April 19, 2015
15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”
21 Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.
23 “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. 24 When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. 25 And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. 26 So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything. ’ 27 And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe. ’ 29 So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you. ’ 30 He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. 31 When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. 32 Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you? ’ 34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
— Matthew 18:15-35, ESV
Inching ever closer to the cross, this three-fold turn of events tells us what the cross is all about. A solitary theme binds together the teaching of Christ in verses 15-20, the short question and answer session between Him and Simon Peter in verses 21-22, and the long and powerful parable that runs through verses 23-35. All of this is about the business of forgiveness.
Forgiveness is Church Business
“Church” appears only twice in the Gospels, both times in Matthew, once in 16:18 and then here (the word appears twice in vs. 17). The church is an embryo in the public ministry of Jesus and the disciples and it is given birth at Pentecost. The Gospels tell of the conception of the church, the book of Acts speaks of her birth and advancement, the Epistles generally tell of the development and organization of the body of Christ, and the book of Revelation tells of her ultimate triumph. Church business is serious business with God, and one of the chief businesses of the church is forgiveness.
For forgiveness to take place, there must first be an acknowledgment of sin. Sin, whether it consists of passive imperfections or active grievances, is not something people like to readily admit. Therefore, the church must deal with it delicately and directly. Delicately, when it comes to non-members, visitors, and the general public; but, directly when it comes to the confessing members of an accountable, local, visible body of Christ. This particular text deals with the latter, when a brother or church member sins in an outstanding or serious way.
The process for disciples disciplining disciples is didactically dramatized by Jesus. The first step is to go, person to person, and describe to your fellow church member the sin and its injury. If compassionate confidentiality does not secure a confession, step two is to make it a two-or-more conference. If this does not suffice, it becomes a matter for the church to handle as a body, urging repentance and outlining the consequences, which are implied as expulsion, since an unrepentant church member has as much right to retain membership as a Gentile or tax collector would have in a devout Jewish synagogue. The stated goal is forgiveness, repentance, and restoration. But the higher goal is the glory of God reflected in the purity of His church.
The business of forgiveness in the basics of church discipline seems to be lost in the modern church, and the modern church has lost much because of it. People at large today believe you can be a good Christian without ever attending public worship. Why? Because we have tolerated such in the membership of the church. People today believe you can be a good Christian and be a fornicator, adulterer, or homosexual. Why? Because we have tolerated such in the membership of the church. When we blur the lines of sin for those who confess Christ we make the gospel very foggy for those who do not.
We do not need a revival of the Pharisees or some sort of Gestapo in the church. But we do need a revival of responsible church membership, genuine discipleship, and true holiness (not holy rollers) in the church. It is the business of the church to uphold the standards and offer forgiveness when they are breached. Typically, if not exhaustively, those who bind together as the true church on earth will be bound together in Heaven one day. Those who shun the gospel, and its basic moral standards, will be lost.
Notice again how serious this matter is to God, as reflected in vs. 19-20. In a statement that affirms the deity of Christ and His constant presence and guidance for His church, the clear context is church discipline. This is something we must do, for the glory of God, for the good of the church, and for the goal of reaching sinners with the gospel.
Forgiveness is Personal Business
Christianity’s corporate personality, the church, needs strengthening in the business of forgiveness. But at its core, forgiveness is something that must spring from the heart of every born again believer in Jesus Christ. Forgiveness is personal business, and often it is painful and repetitive.
Simon Peter, constantly portrayed by Matthew as both hero and goofball, poses a question prompted by prior teaching and personal pride. Jewish rabbis taught that it was magnanimous to forgive a person up to three times when they sinned against you. Though baseball had yet to be invented, the Pharisaical rule was three strikes and your out. Peter wanted a better batting average, so he pitched a perfect seven. Jesus’ seventy-seven times seems like overkill to demonstrate the need for ongoing and unending forgiveness.
But do we really have to forgive everybody for every thing all the time? The context governing this entire text is the forgiveness of a brother, implying a person who shares our Christian faith. Perhaps we are not required to forgive unbelievers, since unbelievers stand unforgiven by God? The implication in Peter’s question indicates repentance on the part of the sinner, that the process in the previous passage worked, but some sin happened again, which will require another chapter of forgiveness. Perhaps we are not required to forgive those who refuse to repent?
The ensuing parable told by Jesus clears up these questions. If you profess to be a Christian, a brother or sister in Christ, it is your business to forgive, period. Forgiveness means surrendering your rights to be angry, even though anger and hurt may persist. Forgiveness means dropping any ways and means to retaliate or punish, leaving that to God and government. Forgiveness means a willingness to love and help the very person who committed the sin. Forgiveness is hard at first, but it gets easier. Forgiveness can be quite painful, but the pain eventually subsides. Forgiveness is really the only way to make the hurt and hard feelings go away, which is one of the main reasons the Heavenly Father requires His children to give it. Forgiveness is your business, personally, if you are a child of God.
Why? Because if you are a child of God, God has already forgiven you of a debt you could never pay. The amount owed in the parable is astronomical, as is your sin debt before God. One sin against a supremely holy Supreme Being is one too many, and you and I have committed millions. The blood of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who was slain in the most ungodly conspiracy ever committed by man, is on your hands and mine. Yet, by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, we stand forgiven and free forever. How can we not forgive others, unless we have not been truly forgiven ourselves?
How do we know we are truly forgiven? That’s God’s business.
Forgiveness is God’s Business
God is clearly the king in the parable, and the parable is completely about forgiveness. Forgiveness is ultimately God’s business. But unlike our mandate to forgive unconditionally and repeatedly, God places conditions and limitations on His forgiveness.
God’s offer of forgiveness through the gospel of Jesus Christ is free, gracious, and merciful. Many through the ages have grabbed a hold through some kind of profession of faith, whether it be baptisms or confirmations or so-called altar calls. But professing faith does not necessarily make one a Christian. Practicing your faith does. This is not salvation by works, but salvation that works.
And one of the ways salvation works best is in the business of forgiveness. The one given forgiveness in the parable could not give forgiveness. He wanted the benefits of grace without handling the responsibilities. He wanted the love the king but could show no love to the king’s other subjects. His idea of the gospel was what’s in it for me, a one-way street of getting without giving, faith without works. His profession of faith and possession of forgiveness was taken away, because it never really existed.
Then comes the chilling last line, “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
Forgiveness is God’s business, and He does not do business with everyone. God will not forgive the unrepentant, the unbelieving, and apparently, the unforgiving. Real repentance and real faith results in real forgiveness, and in God’s business it is a two-way street. You get forgiveness from God, you give forgiveness to others. If this is not easy for you, remember that it was not easy, nor cheap, nor free for God.
Remember these things happened on Christ’s walk to the cross. The cross is the pathway to forgiveness, which flows from His head, His hands, His feet, and His side. It flows through you, too, if you are a true child of God and follower of the Lord Jesus Christ. Let us make it our church business, and our personal business, for our God is in the business of forgiveness.
Dr. Charles F. "Chuck" DeVane, Jr., is the Pastor of Lake Hamilton Baptist Church in Hot Springs, Arkansas. His weekly sermon article, "The Gospel Truth," has been published in newspapers in Arkansas and Georgia. Dr. DeVane is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and has served in the pastorate for over 20 years. Contact Pastor Chuck at PastorChuck@lakehamiltonbaptistchurch.org