Forgiveness: A Mark of a Healthy Church
Our Lord and Savior expects forgiveness to be constant, not occasional. In Matthew 18:21–22, Peter came to Jesus with a faulty view of employing forgiveness. He suggested merely “seven” acts of forgiveness as the maximum of mercy to be extended. Before criticizing his “smallness of heart,” consider that the practice in today’s church may be more narrow. Jesus corrects Peter’s shallow grasp of forgiveness and commands a constant, not occasional, mercy, with a statistically strong metaphor, “I do not say to you seven times….” Perhaps Peter momentarily presumed Jesus considered him a generous and gracious follower of the Master, having suggested such extravagance. Jesus, however, finished correcting Peter, saying, “…but seventy times seven.”
The Savior warns Christians of the resistance to forgiving. Christ then presents the subsequent parable of the unmerciful servant who owes a debt of approximately seven million dollars to a king who mercifully cancels payment. Despite the grace received, the servant abusively demands payment of the debt owed him by a “fellow servant” and finally imprisons that servant for inability to pay. Jesus calls this “wicked.” The parable’s drama unnerves our graceless behavior and unveils our tragic underestimation of the cross’ forgiveness to us.
The Savior also defines forgiveness. In both this parable as well as the Lord’s Prayer in the gospel of Matthew, sin is portrayed as debt to be forgiven or cancelled by the one owed. Hence, Jesus defines kingdom forgiveness as voluntary incursion of loss of that which is owed to release another from obligated payment. This is the distinctive of kingdom forgiveness in opposition to the world’s forgiveness.
A Christian incurs personal loss for the good of another, knowing that Christ did so for us on the cross. Unfortunately, words like “I can’t forgive until they make it right” are common among those outside and even inside the church. Forgiveness neither demands justice for trespass nor avoids sacrifice for the violator.
Biblical churches are in need of forgiveness too. To answer the objection, “You just don’t know my church, my Sunday school, my small group, my board, my pastor, my family, etc.,” employ the book of Exodus metaphorically without substantive alterations to the content. Imagine a congregational meeting in 1400 bc at the “Sinai Presbyterian,” “Baptist,” “Episcopal,” or “Community” church.
The “youth pastor” of this church (as Exodus records), Korah, assisted by Dathan and Abiram, (Ex. 6:21–24; Num. 16), stands and seeks the privilege of the floor from the moderator, Moses. He says: “Our senior pastor, Moses, is such a poor leader! He took our congregation on a family retreat and was lost for forty years. I move we execute him!” Dathan and Abiram quickly “seconded” the motion. The congregation shouts, “We agree! Yeah, that will get this church back on track!”
Korah’s motion serves the impetus for further discontent by members of the Sinai Church. A second member stands saying, “We ran out of iced tea at the last church supper. That’s inexcusable! I’ll quit coming if people don’t plan better!” A chorus of “amens” fills the sanctuary.
A third member stands with fist raised and announces, “Chicken, chicken, chicken; why do we always have to eat chicken? Why not have steak at church suppers? If I have to eat those freezer-bought biscuits at a prayer breakfast again, I’m moving to another church!” (see Num. 11; 16).
In the midst of shouts of agreement, imagine yourself leaning to someone seated near you and asking, “Has pastor Moses ever called you to repentance for your sin and challenged you with forgiveness of each other?” The answer comes quickly, “Surely he preached a sermon on that in Egypt, Elim, and Rephidim!” “What was the response?” you ask. “We ignored it and complained about something else,” is the reply!
Consider the average pastor’s response to such a church, let alone an average church member. Is it not something like, “I feel a peace about leaving here! I sense God calling me somewhere else! God couldn’t want me near people like this!” As a result of such expressed disdain for forgiveness, and the accompanying nomadic wandering from place to place, real forgiveness given and received is rare among God’s people.
Moses had no such option of wandering away! These were God’s chosen people and Moses either dealt with the high price of forgiveness or he failed his God. He could not go to another neighborhood or city and join Ichabod Memorial Church.
This extensive metaphor helps unmask the deeply systemic flight from paying the price of forgiveness that marks the twenty-first century American church. Consider afresh the voluntary loss incurred by our covenant-keeping king for His own people. Nothing else will melt the unforgiving, debt-demanding heart and begin to reconcile sinners in Jesus’ church.