In all the Christian vocabulary there is scarcely a word more cherished that the word forgiven. It is basic to all our hope. We stand before God accused, guilty, and owing a debt greater than we could ever pay. But resting our case on Jesus Christ who in the place of sinners paid that debt in full we are released from it, judicially pardoned, and accepted as God’s children.
Jesus’ instruction on forgiveness (Matt. 18:15–20) and parable of the two debtors (Matt. 18:21–35) brims with significance on multiple levels. Here we will highlight only a few. First, we learn something about the nature of forgiveness. This is only implicit in the passage, but it is difficult to miss. The two debtors—one with an insurmountable debt, the other with a perhaps manageable debt—were both forgiven. The king released them from obligation to pay. They were frankly and fully forgiven. What we must not miss is that in so doing, the king absorbed the loss himself. He, in effect, paid the debt for them. Their forgiveness demanded a substitutional payment which, in this case, was paid by the king himself.
So it is with us. God forgives us absolutely; he releases us from our sin-debt. But he does not forgive by divine fiat merely. He forgives on just grounds: the God against whom we have sinned has himself, in the person of his Son, paid the debt for us. This is the very meaning of the cross and the glad announcement of the gospel. Jesus Christ took the curse of our sin to himself, and we are released from it. The lesson is clear: forgiveness demands substitutional payment.
The leading point of the parable, however, concerns us who have been forgiven. Focus lands on the debtor who was forgiven that insurmountable debt, who afterwards exacted full payment of one who owed him a manageable sum and sold him and his family into servitude to even the score. To him the king says, “You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” (vv. 32–33).
The point here painfully obvious: forgiveness demands forgiveness, and this is what our Lord presses. When a brother sins against us and then repents, we are obliged to forgive—and this without limit, even “seventy times seven” (vv. 21–22). We ourselves have been forgiven an insurmountable debt, and thus we are implicitly obliged to forgive others. It’s the gospel way.
Your brother slanders you, harms your reputation, and then comes in repentance. He may seek to repair the damage as he is able, but damage is done. To forgive him you must absorb the loss. You accept the consequences of his sin against you. We cannot say, “That is the last straw!” or “I’ll never forget this!” Recalling the infinite debt that we have been forgiven we resist the urge to get even or even hold grudge. We forgive because we ourselves have been forgiven a much greater debt.