If someone jostled you, what would spill over—forgiveness and mercy, or bitterness and judgment? Challenging us to remember our own deep need for mercy, Alistair Begg exhorts us to mirror our Father’s mercy toward others. God has forgiven us an unpayable debt. Now, He asks us to forgive the comparatively smaller debts we are owed.
Father, we pray that as we take these moments to study in the Bible, that we will be taught by the Spirit of God, that you will help us tonight, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
For those of you who were present this morning, you know that in our studies in Luke’s Gospel, we were looking at the verses which confront us with the necessity of ensuring that we are not involved in taking the spirit of censoriousness, which is represented in the harsh judgmentalism which Jesus tells us not to be involved in, nor are we to be involved in the condemning spirit which so many of us are prone to, but instead, we are to be these individuals who are marked by a spirit of forgiveness. And I want to stay with this this evening for a moment or two longer—indeed, I want to try and achieve a number of things in the time that we have available to us in coming to these baptisms, but I want us not to get away just too quickly or too lightly from this issue of forgiveness.
I think it is more than fair to say that a readiness to forgive is the acid test of our moral and spiritual stature . Indeed, in light of the story there in Matthew 18, which we have just read, it would not be wrong for us to say that, really, a readiness to forgive is the test of whether we are real Christians or not. Because, remember, Jesus signs off the story by saying, “In the same way that this individual was responded to, so my Father will respond to you if you do not forgive your brother or your sister from your heart.” And what he’s saying there is, of course, that forgiveness on the part of ourselves as individuals is an indication of the fact that we have understood the immensity of God’s forgiveness, and that if we in turn are marked by a grievous and judgmental, harsh, condemning spirit and we refuse to forgive from our hearts, then we actually testify to the fact that despite whatever profession we may choose to make or the things we may want to say about what has happened to us in our past, we provide no evidence of the fact that we are actually the sons and daughters of the Most High.
So then, let us return to this matter of forgiveness for a moment or two this evening. Forgiveness is as indispensable to the life and health of our souls as food is indispensable to our physical bodies. When we think in terms of forgiveness, we have to ask the question, Where is forgiveness, first of all, to be found? And the answer, of course, is that forgiveness is found in God; it is found in the character of God the Father. Let me quote to you from the psalmist in Psalm 130. He says, “If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness; therefore you are [to be] feared.” When Daniel speaks of God in chapter 9 in verse 9, he describes God in this way: “The Lord our God is merciful and forgiving, even though we have rebelled against him.” And in a passage from Isaiah 55:8, which we are often found quoting, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” you will discover, when you look at that, that the context is in the very framework of the pardoning nature of God, and what God is saying through the prophet is, “Unlike you folks, by my very nature I am a God of pardon and I am a God mercy.”
So when men and women tonight ask the question, you know, with Lady Macbeth, “How can I get these dreadful spots out of my hands? How can I be cleansed from a guilty conscience? Where can I turn to eradicate the deeds of my past and to have a sense of freedom and a sense of forgiveness?”—the answer is, we may turn to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to this one alone.
I only caught, this afternoon, the briefest of pieces from the memorial service that was coming covered live by CNN. Some of you may have seen it in its totality. And I may be doing a disservice to the totality of the coverage, having only seen a fraction of it. But the piece that I fastened on—and it couldn’t have lasted more than a minute or so before I had to be on my way—was a section in which the congregation in Fort Worth were singing a hymn. Now, presumably, a hymn of praise and worship to God, and perhaps of extolling Christ in all his lordship; and the faces of the people were a mixture of joy and sadness, but certainly of affirmation. That was what was actually happening live. CNN were making use of a commentator who was talking over the hymnody some of the worst twaddle you’ve ever heard in your life: explaining about the different faith traditions, and how Tradition One could believe this, and Tradition Two may believe that, and so on, and actually gutting the memorial service of the very testimony that it was able to bring because these people were clear that there is salvation in no one else, but only in the Lord Jesus Christ, and that there is redemption only in Christ; that of all the religious figures of the world, the only one who claimed to be God, and the only one who claimed after three days that he would rise from the dead, and the only one who did it was Jesus. But the commentator from the Interdenominational Theological Center was denuding that of all of its impact while the hymnody was going on, as if somehow or another to make religion more accessible, to make the possibility of forgiveness found on multiple fronts, to say to people, “You know, you can really just tune in at any point you so desire.”
No. Where is forgiveness to be found? It is to be found in God and in God alone. And it is in the incarnate God, after he has been spat upon and mocked, and stripped of his clothes and dressed up in another outfit, and then had that torn off him, and abandoned in his nakedness, and nailed between two criminals, and hammered in a bloody mess up on to the cross, that this God on the cross, in all of his cries from that predicament, declares, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they[’re doing].” And the spirit of forgiveness found in God recognizes no boundaries, reminding us that if we are going to make the discovery of true forgiveness, we must always be turning to this book.
Where is forgiveness to be found? It is to be found in God. “Well,” says somebody, “what if I don’t need to be forgiven? Surely forgiveness is only necessary for those who have offended.” And you’re saying to yourself, “The way I approach life is, I try to do to others as I would have them do to me. I try not to have a spirit of judgment in me, and I know that I’m not perfect, but I don’t really see any need of this story of a dying Christ and of the shedding of his blood.”
Well, of course, none of us will go to a God for forgiveness unless we understand that we need to be forgiven. And the Bible says that without exception, apart from Christ, the sinless Son of God, there is no one who has ever been sinless. Paul says, “For all have sinned, and [they] come short of the glory of God”; therefore, all are guilty and all are in need of forgiveness. The Bible describes our sin in a variety of ways: it says that we have broken God’s laws, it says that we have deviated from God’s path, that we have fallen short of God’s standard, that we are guilty of rebelling against him, we’re guilty of filthiness, that we are actually debtors.
Now, of course, that is not necessarily a very popular notion this evening, the idea that you and I tonight are debtors. Some of us take pride in the fact that we’re really indebted to nobody at all, and we work very hard all of our lives to ensure that we minimize as much debt as is possible. But what the Bible says, when we turn to it, is that each of us is in God’s debt. And that’s why Jesus tells the story that we just read for us there in Matthew 18: to make the point so clearly. Like the servants in that story, each of us has a debt to settle. And the indebtedness gets worse with the passage of time. In fact, our indebtedness is so vast that it is impossible for us ever to clear it. We are like the first man in the story who owed so much—he owed millions and millions, in comparative terms today—where that when he said, you know, “If you just give me a chance, I’ll pay it all back,” it was a very nice sentiment, but it was totally impossible. And so, for him to try and rectify his circumstances was not even likely. And therefore, the master forgives him his debt.
Now, the message of the Bible is simply this: that you and I are in debt; the debt must be settled; I cannot settle the debt, so unless someone else can step up and settle it for me, then I am in dreadful state. And the good news of the Bible is “that God made him”—that is, Jesus—“who had no sin”—who had no debt—“to be sin for us”—to be indebted for us—“so that in him we might become the righteousness of God”—in other words, that he might take all of our indebtedness, and we might be granted all of his credit.
Now, this is good news for those who realize themselves to be debtors. God holds an account with your name and with mine. The debt is so vast that we cannot clear it. Christ, however, has born the penalty and has eradicated the debt for all who believe in him and all who cast themselves upon his mercy, making it possible for us to have the debt cancelled.
Can I ask you tonight, have you ever factored that in? Have you ever thought that out? Have you ever considered the possibility that the reason you feel as unfulfilled as you may feel, the reason you feel as wretched as you sometimes do, is not actually because of all the superficial and circumstantial things that you’ve been wrestling with in your life, but it is at a far deeper level than that, and you’ve been unable to really explain it?
Financial indebtedness is a dreadful weight on anyone’s mind. One of the greatest keys to disruption in a marriage is in the financial realm, where it reaches a point—an epidemic point—where the family are now no longer able to cope with these things, and the matters are so overwhelming that it sets them at odds with one another and at odds with everyone else. It is a dreadful feeling. In the same way, by our very nature we are indebted. That’s why Jesus said that we should pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”
Now, the main lesson in the parable that Jesus told and that we just read was simply this: the forgiven sinner, prompted by a grateful heart, must always then forgive whoever has trespassed against him and must then do everything in his power to bring about reconciliation. Because if we do not exercise that element of forgiveness, we call in question whether we ourselves have been forgiven.
Now, this essentially brings us full circle to where we were this morning, which is where I want to get: to this matter of the hypocrisy of an unforgiving spirit—the absolute hypocrisy of an unforgiving spirit. When I refuse to forgive somebody else, it says this: that I have minimized the enormity of my offense, and I choose to maximize the enormity of their offense; that I have not understood my need of forgiveness from God, for if I had, recognizing all that I am, then I would be quick to forgive others who need forgiveness from me. And, when I fail to forgive someone from my heart, then I exaggerate their offenses against me, while at the same time making little of my own.
Now, C. S. Lewis has a wonderful little comment on this in one of his little-read works—some of you who are C. S. Lewis fans will have read it, “Fern-seed and Elephants”—but it’s on forgiveness. And I was reading it just this afternoon as I followed up my studies of this morning, and I want to read just this section for you:
Forgiving does not mean excusing. Many people seem to think it does. They think that if you ask them to forgive someone who has cheated or bullied them, you are trying to make out that there was really no cheating or no bullying. [In other words, that you say, “Well, it never really happened.”] But if that were so, there would be nothing to forgive. They keep on replying, “But I tell you the man broke a most solemn promise.” Exactly. That is precisely what you have to forgive. (This doesn’t mean you must necessarily believe his next promise; it does mean that you must make every effort to kill every trace of resentment in your own heart, every wish to humiliate or hurt him or to pay him [back]).
The difference between this situation and the one in which you are asking God’s forgiveness is this: in our own case, we accept excuses too easily; in other people’s, we do not accept them easily enough. As regards my own sins, it is a safe bet (though not a certainty) that the excuses are not really so good as I think. As regard other men’s sins against me, it is a safe bet (though not a certainty) that the excuses are better than I think. One must therefore begin by attending carefully to everything which may show that the other man was not so much to blame as we thought. But even if he is absolutely fully to blame, we still have to forgive him. And even if ninety-nine percent of his apparent guilt can be explained away by really good excuses, the problem of forgiveness begins with the one percent of guilt that is left over.… To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.
This is hard. It is perhaps not so hard to forgive a single great injury, but to forgive the incessant provocations of daily life—to keep on forgiving the bossy mother-in-law, the bullying husband, the nagging wife, the selfish daughter, the deceitful son, and so on—how can we do it?
You see, that’s what people say: “You know, I’m prepared to forgive him this once,” or “I’m prepared to forgive him this half a dozen times,” or “I’m prepared to forgive him, you know, seventy times,” or whatever it is, “but there’s a limit to how many times I’ll go on forgiving him.” No, there isn’t!
How can we do it? Only, I think, by remembering where we stand, by meaning our words when we say in our prayers each night, “Forgive our trespasses as we forgive those that trespass against us.” We are offered forgiveness on no other terms. To refuse it is to refuse God’s mercy for ourselves. There is no hint of exceptions, and God means what he says.
In other words, it is not possible for us to slide off by saying, “Well, I’ll forgive you, but I want you to know that I will never forget.”
To be guilty of the hypocrisy of the unforgiving servant is harmful in the extreme. And as we said this morning, there is nothing that will eat out a heart, prejudice our thinking, quicker than an unforgiving spirit . And the reverse is also true: there is nothing that will grant liberation and freedom and joy and peace of heart and mind faster and quicker than the genuine experience of forgiveness. Failure in the discovery of forgiveness leaves me in the bondage of my indebtedness and prevents the possibility of my being able to forgive my brother or my sister from the heart.
And, says Jesus, such an unforgiving spirit is not simply harmful; it is, in the end, hopeless. Because the unforgiving person—this is Jesus speaking—is destined to everlasting punishment—to everlasting punishment—because of a refusal to forgive; spend eternity in hell for refusing to forgive. Because by my refusal to forgive, I am saying that I have never truly discovered the forgiveness which God has made possible in the person of his Son. And that, loved ones, is what makes this so staggering in its implications. Because some of us have developed an approach to life that allows us, having established the top-ten list of sins that we most dislike in other people, and we keep that list with us, and we refer to it with regularity, and we pride ourselves in the fact that we have not erred and strayed from our ways in relationship to the top ten on the list. And Jesus says, “You know, I’m not really concerned about your list at the moment; I’m concerned about whether you’re prepared to forgive your brother or your sister from your heart.”
You see, we cannot drive the world until we ourselves are driven. Our flag that flies over the castle of our hearts can never be unfurled unless God would breathe from heaven. And the Christian says,
Love is the flag flown high
from the castle of my heart,
for the King is in residence here.
Joy is the flag flown high
from the castle of my heart,
for the King is in residence here.
Peace is the flag flown high
from the castle of my heart,
for the King is in residence here.
And the people said, “Oh, really? Really? Well, why will you not forgive your brother from your heart? Who in the world do you think are, God? You really think you’re the judge? You really think you have the freedom to condemn, to assume you know others’ motives, to assume you know the motivation of their hearts, to assume that you can see inside of them? Who do you think you are?”
I say to you again, unless we learn to “be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you,” then we should never put our heads on the pillow at night with any sense of assurance at all that if we die in our sleep we will awaken in the presence of Christ. You see, and what do we tell people? “If you raised your hand when someone asked you to raise a hand, if you signed a card when somebody told you to sign a card, if you said this and you said that at a given moment in time, then you can fall asleep any night in the total assurance that you’re going to heaven.” Let me ask you a question: Do you ever find that in the New Testament? Is there ever a place where Jesus says that? No. What does Jesus say? Jesus says, “Guys, let me tell you a story. You want to know how many times you should forgive your brother? An unlimited number of times. And let me just illustrate it for you: Here’s a guy who has got a vast debt; he can’t repay it. He cries out for mercy; he is shown mercy. And then he goes out and strangles some poor wretch that works in his office ’cause he owes him five bucks. Do you think,” he says, “that this guy has understood the immensity of the forgiveness that he has enjoyed?” The answer is no, he hasn’t understood it at all. Because if he had understood what it was to be forgiven a debt that he could not ever hope to repay, don’t you think he would have said to his brother or sister, “Hey, it’s okay. I forgive you. I forgive you for the hundredth time”?
And when we are prepared to live with that spirit of generosity, then the promise of God is clear: “If you don’t judge, you won’t be judged.” Both immediately, in terms of interpersonal relationships—if you don’t have a judgmental spirit, the chances are you will not be responded to in that way—and it’s also true, ultimately, in terms of standing before the bar of God’s judgment. We escape judgment on that day because we are in Christ, and we know that we are in Christ because we declare it by the compassion of our heart, which chooses not to excuse but to forgive. “Do not [condemn].” And what’s the promise? “You won’t be condemned either.” “Forgive.” And what’s the promise? “You will be forgiven.” “Give.” And what’s the promise? “It will be given to you. [In] good measure, pressed down, [and] shaken together and running over.”
Some of you are old enough to remember when you bought cookies in that way. I think you probably are, or maybe America’s been advanced for so long that none of you are old enough to remember this. But when I used to buy biscuits for my mother at the city bakeries, they were all in displays with lids that opened up like this. And the lady would go, and she would take a bag, and then she would shovel in, or place in—shovel, mainly—all the stuff. And if you asked for, I guess, a half pound, or whatever it was, or a pound, the key was that you got a real good deal. And every so often, there would be somebody who was just manifestly generous, and so they would make sure that the biscuits got in, and they would shake ’em a wee bit so they settled, and then they put some more in, and shake ’em again so it settled, and by the time it was finished, man, you had biscuits coming off the top of the thing, you had biscuits going everywhere, and it just was an expression of a wonderful generosity. That’s the picture that is used here: “If you forgive, you’ll be forgiven. If you give in this way, you will receive in the measure that has been given to you.”
“A good measure, pressed down, [and] shaken together.” The picture actually is of grain there, and of a man or a woman who would have had a kind of blousy top hanging over their belt, and when the guy is putting out the grain and it’s overflowing, it falls down into the folds of his blouse, and there it is hanging, and he’s got grain all over the place. And he says, “That’s the way that God operates, and that’s the way I would like you to operate, too.”
When I was at school in England, there was a man called Mr. Entwistle. (And I’ll finish with this; I’m not sure it’s a good way to finish, but I’ve started now, so I have to.) But I went to school with a bunch of boys, and girls too, and we used to go out at lunchtime to Mr. Entwistle’s shop, which was in the bottom level, which was street level, of a large terraced house, and you essentially walked in on street level to what was the underground level of his home, where he lived above the shop. And every day he would put his produce out—apples and oranges and bits and pieces and flowers and different things—and display his wares, and he had more inside. And we used to go in and buy bottles of pop, which were in glass bottles which had tops on them that you couldn’t unscrew, but you had to take off with an opener. And we would go in and get the bottles while he wasn’t looking and shake them like crazy; so, we would turn away from him, and we should shake the bottles like fury, and then would take them up, and, of course, wait for him to open a top, and then it would just go up his nose and over his shirt and all over the place. And eventually he got smart on us, and he decided that he could, you know, detect it. And so it was a great game, and he would take a bottle, and he would look at it, and he would say, “That looks shook to me. You open it.”
Now, I don’t know if there is any value in this illustration at all, except to say this: there ought to be a sense in which people are looking at us and saying, you know, “You look shook to me. I mean, you look like with just the slightest little nudge, you would just overflow with generosity, and with richness, and with compassion, and with forgiveness, and with an absence of condemnation,”—as opposed to the kind of containerized, rigid, self-assured, critically glancing, pharisaical, judgmental smart alecks.
One of the reasons that people find attendance in churches quite distasteful is because they cannot be sure that although God is a God of forgiveness, that they’re going to encounter the same spirit among his children . And since they cannot see God, and they can see us, it would be dreadful for them to be getting the wrong picture, wouldn’t it?
Father God, you who love with an everlasting love, you who do not excuse or condone our sin but punish it in the cross of your Son and grant forgiveness by the shedding of his blood, teach us, then, to forgive our debtors, even as we humbly ask you tonight to forgive our debts. Help us, Lord, to get it all in perspective by taking a fresh look at the extent of what you did in the death of your Son.
And may our pride be crucified at your cross. May our harsh judgmentalism be buried there, and may, every time it rises within us, we be enabled to take it back to the foot of the cross and be reminded of the extent of our indebtedness in sin and all that you have granted us liberation from, so that we, in turn, may not sit on the judge’s throne or speak with the tones of condemnation, but that we might forgive, and that we might give, and that we might look “shook,” that when people bump into us they discover that we overflow with the love of Christ, who said, “Father forgive them; for they know not what they do.” We cry out to you in Jesus’ name. Amen.
 Matthew 18:35 (paraphrased).
 Psalm 130:3–4 (NIV 1984).
 William Shakespeare, Macbeth, act 5, scene 1. Paraphrased.
 Luke 23:34 (KJV).
 Romans 3:23 (KJV).
 2 Corinthians 5:21 (NIV 1984).
 Matthew 6:12 (KJV).
 C. S. Lewis, “On Forgiveness,” in Fern-seed and Elephants, ed. Walter Hooper (Glasgow: Collins, 1975), 42–43.
 Ibid., 43.
 Author Unknown, “Joy Is the Flag Flown High from the Castle of My Heart.” Paraphrased.
 Ephesians 4:32 (NIV 1984).
 Matthew 18:21–35 (paraphrased).
 Luke 6:37 (paraphrased).
 Luke 6:37 (paraphrased).
 Luke 6:37 (NIV 1984).
 Luke 6:38 (NIV 1984).