In Light of an Unforgivable Debt

Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.  — Matthew 18:23–27

A story is told that during a conference on comparative religions, experts began to debate as to what, if any belief, was unique to the Christian faith. The discussion ruled out many possibilities. Resurrection? Other religions had accounts of returning from death. The Incarnation? Many had stories of gods manifesting in human form. Apparently, the debate went on for some time, that is, until C.S. Lewis wandered into the room. Asking what the issue at hand was, his colleagues responded that they were discussing Christianity’s unique contribution to world religion. Lewis, without hesitation responded, “That’s easy. It’s grace.” And the story goes that after some discussion, the participants had to agree. The idea that God would not only share His love free of charge, but that He would remove the debt each of us owe to Him, based solely on faith, is extraordinary and goes against every instinct of humanity. The Hindu idea of karma, the Muslim code of law, the Buddhist eight-fold path—each of these ways are meant to earn approval from God. Only Jesus dares to make God’s love unconditional.

In Matthew 18:21, Peter asks our Lord, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him?” In Peter’s asking, he is falling under the same assumption that other religions operate under, that grace must be earned and there is a limit to how often it is extended. In response to Peter, Jesus replies, “Not seven times, I tell you, but seventy-seven times!” Who could be expected to keep forgiving debts when it costs them something? The math of grace doesn’t make any sense. So, Jesus gives Peter a story to make His point. 

In Matthew 18:23-27, Jesus tells of a master who forgives a debt, which according to today’s standards, is in the rough area of $8.5 billion. This is a debt that is utterly impossible to pay back, yet the master forgives it. Don’t miss this: it is easy to think that the master merely sees the debt as money that won’t go into his pockets—money that he merely misses out on gaining. The thing is, however, since this was a debt, the money was the master’s and he gave it out as a loan. This means that when he forgives the debt, it costs the master $8.5 billion in order to forgive his servant. This should radically change the servant who received this grace. But unfortunately it does not. The servant turns around and demands a debt of about $14,000 be repaid to him immediately. When the fellow servant uses the exact same language (v. 29) that the first servant himself used to be forgiven, he shows no compassion at all and tosses the fellow into bondage. Little does he realize, even if he is owed the $14k, he is still $8.49 billion ahead. He simply does not understand the math of grace.

So, what about you and me? Do we understand this math? If we are in Christ, the debt that you and I are forgiven is insurmountable. That debt was not merely a tax write off; it cost our Heavenly Father every penny. Because of His love towards us, He was willing to pay every single penny to those who cry out to Him. If we understand the simple, yet mind-boggling math of grace shown to us, it should radically transform the way in which we take the cost of debt upon ourselves in order to forgive others. For, even if we are to take a hit on the cost of that debt, we are still unfathomably “in the black” in light of God’s grace toward us.

Father, we ask that You would help us to understand the depth of grace yYu have lavished upon us so that we might be willing to absorb the cost of forgiveness that grace requires of us. May we be willing to release others from the crushing weight of debt they owe us by remembering what our forgiveness cost You. 

Christopher Heslep
Ministry Director at Princeton University

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