Unable to Pray

The servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ Out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt” (vv. 26–27).

- Matthew 18:21-35

Scripture looks at sin from a number of different perspectives and defines it in several complementary ways. The Westminster Shorter Catechism, in question and answer 14, summarizes the biblical teaching on sin in this manner: “Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.” In this short definition, we see both sins of omission—the failure to do what the Lord asks, or “missing the mark”—as well as sins of commission—seeing what God commands and either not doing it or doing the opposite. Scripture also speaks of sin as a debt. In the Lord’s prayer, for example, Jesus tells us to ask God to “forgive us our debts” (Matt. 6:12) As a result of our sin, we owe something to our Creator. We are debtors who are under obligation to repay the Lord, to make restitution for our attempts to steal or lessen His glory by sinning against Him.

We err, however, if we think we are able to repay the debt we owe to God. In our legal system, we sometimes speak of “paying a debt to society” by serving time in prison or satisfying other legal judgments against us. Such language is not inappropriate because as bad as our sins can be on a human level, they are always sins against other finite people. Humanly speaking, law-breaking in a purely human context is finite in nature because human beings are finite. There is a limit to our sins’ harm if we consider the human perspective alone.

Yet we cannot transfer the terminology of “paying a debt to society” over to our relationship with God. We must realize that sin and law-breaking never happens in a purely human context. All sin occurs in the divine-human context, so all transgression is sin against our infinitely holy Creator. This means that all sins incur an infinite and, therefore, unpayable debt. Finite people lack all capacity to repay an infinite debt. No amount of good deeds, worship, or beating up on ourselves in the form of physical or mental self-flagellation will ever be enough to pay the debt we have incurred. Even if we had an eternity to repay what we owe, we would not satisfy it. We would never receive a “paid in full” notice from the Lord. One reason hell is eternal is that sin against infinity deserves infinite punishment.

Today’s passage illustrates this idea. The servant who owed ten thousand talents had a debt that was effectively unpayable. After thirty years of working, there would still be money owed even if he devoted all of his income to the debt. Our debt to the Lord is similar. Even if we devoted all that we are to repaying what we owe, we could never satisfy the debt.

Coram Deo

If we look at other world religions, we see all manner of rituals designed to help individuals repay their debt to the Creator. But all these acts can offer is false hope. We cannot hope to repay the infinite debt we owe to God, so we must rely on an infinitely worthy person to do it for us. That person is the Son of God, who, having taken on a human nature, satisfies the infinite debt we owe to the Lord. If you have trusted in Him, your debt to God has been paid. That is good news indeed.

Passages for Further Study

1 Samuel 2:25a
Luke 7:36–50
Colossians 2:13–14
Revelation 20:7–15

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