Forgiveness, often misunderstood in a variety of ways, is an extremely important element of our relationship with Jesus. It was important enough that Jesus gave forgiveness a prominent position in teaching the disciples how to pray. The freedom of forgiveness is a topic of much discussion between Jesus and His disciples, and between Jesus and the Father, even from the cross. Obviously, it is an issue we need to see with clarity and truth.
Our starting point for understanding the freedom of forgiveness is to understand completely in our hearts what all we have been forgiven. This statement is a version of, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3) but is presented from the perspective of forgiving because we have been forgiven so much.
The parable of the unmerciful servant illustrates this idea very clearly. Jesus tells the story of a servant with a tremendous debt who begs his master for patience. The master forgives the servant’s debt, but the servant turns around and demands repayment for a small debt owed to him. When the debtor couldn’t pay, the servant had that man thrown in jail. Here is how the story ends: “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.” (Matthew 18: 32-35, NIV).
We don’t necessarily like the ending of this story, but it is a warning from Jesus. Who are our “jailers”? I would say we are “bound” by the sins of others when we refuse to forgive them, so let’s say sins are the jailers. Then in this parable, Jesus is warning us that if we don’t forgive, we will be tortured by unforgiven sins, both ours and the sins of others against us, until we can repay the debt owed – which, of course, we can never do, as is true for both the unmerciful servant and his fellow debtor.
Freedom of Forgiveness
Jesus is teaching us that when we do not forgive others, as we are already forgiven, we leave ourselves in bondage to the sins of the other person. This is an important idea, so let me repeat it: unforgiveness attaches us to the sin of the other person in such a way that we carry the burden (“tortured” by the “jailers”) of the other’s sin as if it is our own. It is a horrible burden to bear, to carry the weight of another’s sin. Forgiving others sets me free. I release the other into the hands of Jesus, and allow Him to deal with their sin as He will. It is a question of who “owns” the problem of their sin: will I carry it, or do I allow them to own it and deal with it with Jesus?
Forgiving sin is not something done between the sinner and me; it is something accomplished between God and me. The sinner is not involved in the transaction, because it is not the actions of the sinner that matter here in meriting forgiveness. It is instead the actions of Jesus that matter. See how in the parable the master is angered not because of the debt but because of the lack of mercy? He specifically mentions how he had mercy on the original servant.
This is the case with us. Having received the greatness of the mercy of Jesus for all of our sins, do we truly understand the depth of His forgiveness if we are holding others accountable to pay for their debts to us? Can they pay those debts? In truth, Jesus is the only one Who can pay for those debts. In releasing those debts into Jesus’ hands, I am acknowledging this truth and setting myself free from any bondage to the sin committed against me and finding my freedom in the forgiveness of others.
Jesus’ forgiveness is simply the grace and mercy offered through the blood of Jesus, that He would pay our debt. Paul points out, “We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin— because anyone who has died has been freed from sin. In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 6:2, 6-7, 11 NIV).
Refusing to forgive others makes us a slave to their sin. Forgiveness sets us free, so that we can truly live the new life of freedom and peace offered – and paid for – by Jesus.