Faith-Informed Forgiveness (Matthew 18:21-22)
I. Getting and Getting
For a while Walmart and I had a good thing going. A number of years ago, I bought one of their premium car batteries, one that came with a very generous, 'free replacement' warranty. What worked to my advantage in this relationship was the fact that I (like most of you) live in the Sonoran desert, where around 110 days out of the year we enjoy temperatures of 100 degrees or hotter... sometimes much hotter. And as many of you know, those temperatures are “no bueno” when it comes to car batteries.
So every 2-3 years for quite a while, I would walk into Walmart and simply exchange my battery for a new one. No extra cost. No questions asked. As I said at the outset, for a while Walmart and I had a good thing going.
But several years ago, that all changed. I'm guessing someone at Walmart HQ noticed a bit of an inequity in terms of battery sales and profits in the desert Southwest. There was no way that Walmart was not losing money on this arrangement. So... they adjusted their policy and began to pro-rate their coverage. Thus, that arrangement... in which... (in my time of automotive need) I kept getting and getting, simply came to an end.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus also talked about 'getting and getting' in our time of need. Look with me, if you would, at Matthew chapter 18.
II. The Passage: “Not to Give Offense” (18:21-22)
Take a look at Matthew 18, verses 21–22. Consider this 'question and answer' between Peter and Jesus. We read...
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?”  Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.
Now it may be wise to ask, “Why this question at this time?” Well, if you scan back to the beginning of the chapter, you'll see that Jesus has been talking about discipleship and sin the whole time. In verses 1-4, Jesus talked about that foundational pride that inspires so much sin, and our need to humble ourselves like little children. In verses 5-7, Jesus warned others about the eternal seriousness of tempting and tripping up his disciples. In the same way, in verses 8-9, he called his followers to serious action in order to steer clear of sin. In the next set of verses, 10-14, Jesus called his disciples to care for another in the same way God cares for them, even when they stray. But then things get more personal in verses 15-20. If a fellow a disciples strays, and their sin is (v. 15) “against you”, Jesus says, 'pursue that brother or sister'. And if they don't listen, enlist the help of other believers in pursuing that straying and struggling brother or sister.
But then Peter pipes up in verse 21. “If my brother does sin against me, Lord, how many times should I do what you're calling me to do? What if that brother (or sister) is a repeat offender?”
Peter's question is an important one, isn't it? Forgiveness. As much as we struggle with it, when it comes to relationships, forgiveness is absolutely critical; it's a necessity if we desire health-iness. There's simply no way to overemphasize that fact. Maybe this morning you're longing for forgiveness; longing to see a relationship restored. Or... maybe you're wrestling with the reality that you need to personally seek forgiveness from someone you've hurt.
But... speaking of our struggles, let me suggest that what we find in this short exchange is the difference between what we might call flesh-informed forgiveness and faith-informed forgive-ness. Let me also suggest that this difference is something implied throughout the entire section that begins in verse 15, and runs through the rest of the chapter. So given the importance of this subject, let me share with you three distinctives of faith-informed forgiveness, beginning with verse 15 (we'll use this first point as a stepping stone into our main passage).
1. Faith-Informed Forgiveness Pursues the One Who Wronged You (v. 15)
Look with me at verse 15. Jesus declares, “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.”
This idea that faith-informed forgiveness pursues the one who wronged you might sound strange to many of us because our flesh wants to emphasize two things as most important in that kind of hurtful situation: first, we want to protect ourselves, and second, we want the other person to be penalized in some way. Now, to be clear, a desire for safety is not ultimately a bad thing. Not at all. In the same way, a desire for justice is not ultimately a bad thing. But as Jesus is making clear to us in this verse, those are not the most important things. The most important thing is the well-being of your believing brother or sister.
Notice how the conversation with your brother or sister about their sin is done in private here. That's to protect your brother or sister from unnecessary public shame. Moreover, if that fellow believer “listens to you” (that is, if he or she repents, remorsefully acknowledging their sin), then notice how Jesus describes that victory: “you have gained your brother”. To 'gain' back a brother or sister from the disruptive dangers of sin is the goal of forgiveness.
But people like us have attempted for centuries to create some other version of forgiveness, something that seems to honor Jesus on the surface, but is ultimately informed by our own flesh. This 'flesh-informed' forgiveness doesn't pursue the offender. Instead, it tries to keep the offender at arm's length. Thus we tell ourselves, “I have forgiven that person in my heart. When they realize what they did to me, they have my number. They're the one who sinned, so they can pursue me if they want to make this right.”
Now... there are most certainly situations when we have to leave 'the ball' in that brother or sister's 'court', then wait and pray. But that's only after we've pursued that person, not instead of. The disciple who has said, “I have forgiven that individual in my heart”, but has not made the offense known to the offender, has not discreetly called that fellow believer to repentance, has done nothing to pursue that brother or sister, that Christian calls into question the sincerity of their supposedly forgiving heart. But look me at how this topic progresses into our main passage, where we learn that...
2. Faith-Informed Forgiveness is Wisely Limitless (vs. 21-22)
Look at how the influence of the flesh is also evident in our main verses. Peter acknowledges the guidance of Jesus, but he also wants to place some limits on that guidance. In verse 21, he suggests what he believes to be an extremely gracious and generous measure of pursuing and forgiving an offending brother or sister: “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?”
Think about how the flesh is at work here in Peter's response. Not only is there the possibility that Peter is making his own relational safety the number one factor in this cap on forgiveness, but he also may be elevating his own pride. “Am I really going to let that person walk all over me, again and again? I mean, come on. After seven offenses? What message am I sending? What will others think of me?” Remember, flesh-informed forgiveness makes my well-being the number one priority.
But faith-informed forgiveness conforms to the commands of Christ. Jesus' response to Peter is not a counter offer of a literal amount of seventy-seven times (or as some translations have it, 490 times—70 x 7). Jesus is using a figure of speech, a hyperbole, to declare that there should be no limit on how many times we are willing to pursue the spiritual well-being of our brother or sister by pursuing them for the sake of forgiveness and reconciliation.
Now, we'll see in just a few minutes what should be informing the faith that informs our forgive-ness. But it's important to qualify this radical prescription by Jesus. The question I mentioned earlier, that is, “What message am I sending by repeatedly forgiving a repeat offender?” is an important question. I say this because a forgiveness without limits is not a forgiveness without wisdom. It isn't a forgiveness without discernment.
Loving others well requires both grace and discernment. For example, an abused spouse can both forgive her abuser and set up careful and care-filled boundaries in that relationship. If our goal is to gain the sinner through forgiveness, we can't do that by subsequently enabling their sin. This reminds us about the role of repentance in our main passage. Listen to how Jesus offers this same lesson in Luke 17:3–4...
Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him,  and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.”
Notice that forgiveness is not gratned until the brother or sister repents. Is that a license to stay bitter and distant until the offender repents? No. Not at all. In yet another Gospel, Jesus calls first for a forgiving heart. Mark 11:25... “And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.” It's that forgiving heart that prepares us to grant forgiveness the moment that offending brother or sister does repent. What fuels that kind of heart?...
3. Faith-Informed Forgiveness is Informed by Amazing Grace (vs. 23-35)
Jesus wants Peter to understand why its seventy-seven and not seven. So he provides him with the powerful and well-known parable we find in verses 23-35. I'm not going to read through that entire passage this morning, but if you are unfamiliar with what's traditionally called the “Parable of the Unforgiving/Unmerciful Servant”, I would encourage you to take a look at it later on.
In summary, the parable is about a king and one of his servants, a servant who owes his master an almost unbelievable amount of money. But when the servant pleads for forgiveness, the king graciously grants it. He forgiveness the entire debt. But later, when that same servant runs into a fellow servant who owes him a dramatically smaller amount of money, he not only refuses this man's plea for forgiveness, but also has the man sent to prison.
Now to understand this parable, the opening line is key: (v. 23) “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king...” So what Jesus is telling Peter is that in spite of our deep, deep sin-debt before the Throne, that throne which is above all thrones, in the kingdom of heaven men and women can, amazingly, find complete forgiveness from God. Therefore, if God has lavished such grace on us, how could we not do the same for others?
Of course, as I've suggested, a flesh-informed forgiveness seeks to stress the offended self over the offending sinner. We see this clearly in today's popular discussions of forgiveness that emphasize the benefits, the freedom, the healthiness YOU will experience when you forgive that other person. But as the parable reveals, a flesh-informed forgiveness often skews spiritual proportions; that is, it can exaggerate the offenses we suffer and make that hurtful brother or sister into... the villain. This, in turn, can make us slower to extend forgiveness and tempt us to think of ourselves as the amazingly merciful hero of the story.
But the stunning gospel truth that Jesus reveals in this parable reminds us that this hurtful brother or sister is not the villain. Ultimately, he or she is a fellow sinner. Unlike what our flesh produces, faith-informed forgiveness is inspired by a recognition of myself in the person who has hurt me; that I too am a guilty and needy sinner. And as it has received, it gives. How could we limit to others what we have received and will receive so abundantly from God?
III. The Prince's Riches
Brothers and sisters, friends, unlike Walmart and their battery replacement policy, this divine, arrangement in which (in my time of deep, spiritual need) I keep getting and getting and getting, [this arrangement] will never come to an end. Why? Because the King himself has fully satisfied our incalculable debt. How? Through the riches of his own Son. Though Jesus was the promised Prince of Peace, he suffered violence for us, didn't he? Through His suffering and death on the cross, he covered what all of us owe. Such lavish love. Such staggering mercy. Such amazing grace. And when I believe these things about the forgiveness I've received, the forgiveness I'm called to give should be informed by such faith.
Is your practice of forgiveness faith-informed or flesh-informed? Even now, is there a need for forgiveness in your life? A broken relationship? A throbbing wound? If so, ask God this morning to help you think about forgiveness, above all, in terms of his glory and the other person's need.
Please don't miss the concern of Jesus here for the good of his Church. Do you see that? Yes, we should demonstrate this same gospel-driven mercy in all our relationships. But we are called to give special attention to our relationships with one another. Why? First, because it glorifies our Father. Second, because it's the Father's will that a watching world sees Jesus in our midst; that we embody, that we live out, the Good News we declare. As God taught us through the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 4:32... Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. If we can do that here as God's people, I believe the Spirit will also help us walk in that same mercy out there. Forgiven and forgiving. Let's pray to that end.
More in Our Bible Reading Plan (2021-2022)
October 2, 2022Visions of Jesus (Revelation 19:9-10)
September 25, 2022Why Justice is Worth Singing About (Revelation 15)
September 18, 2022How to Conquer the Dragon (Revelation 12:11)