In Matthew 18 Jesus told an interesting story in response to Peter's question about how often he would be required to forgive his brother. The story reads like this...
Therefore is the kingdom of heaven likened unto a certain king, which would take account of his servants. And when he had begun to reckon, one was brought unto him, which owed him ten thousand talents. But forasmuch as he had not to pay, his lord commanded him to be sold, and his wife, and children, and all that he had, and payment to be made. The servant therefore fell down, and worshiped him, saying, Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. Then the lord of that servant was moved with compassion, and loosed him, and forgave him the debt. But the same servant went out, and found one of his fellow servants, which owed him an hundred pence: and he laid hands on him, and took him by the throat, saying, Pay me that thou owest. And his fellow servant fell down at his feet, and besought him, saying, Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. And he would not: but went and cast him into prison, till he should pay the debt. So when his fellow servants saw what was done, they were very sorry, and came and told unto their lord all that was done. Then his lord, after that he had called him, said unto him, O thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt, because thou desiredst me: Shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellow servant, even as I had pity on thee? And his lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due unto him. So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses (Matthew 18:23-35 AV).
I wonder what would happen to our theology if we took the words at face value? I also wonder what would happen to our lives if we took the words at face value? Of course the issue then becomes what is the face value of the words?
Let's see if we can figure out the answer to that question. First, the story loses all of its punch if Jesus' Father does not follow the example of the king in the story. In other words, so likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you means that Jesus' Father, the King of the Kingdom of Heaven, is going to act just like the king did. What does that mean? It means that at least the crucial thing the king in the story did will be copied by Jesus' Father. So, what was the crucial thing?
First, he determined a certain time when he would take account of his servants. This means that the king decided one day that he would make a certain day the point in time when he would call upon his servants to square their accounts with him. In the story we do not know if that day was known to the servants or if it came upon them as a surprise. In any case, the appointed day was a day of reckoning in which all outstanding debts had to be settled. But this is not the crucial thing.
Second, when a certain servant was brought to him, it was determined that this particular man had gotten rather deeply into debt to his king. His debt totaled ten thousand talents. Now we are not told whether the debt was in silver or gold (a talent of silver is reported by at least one resource to be half the weight of a talent of gold), but in either case, the amount of the debt was very, very large. A question that is almost never asked at this point by most interpreters is this: how did a servant come to be in such a large debt to his king? The most obvious probable answer is that he was a particularly favored servant who apparently operated in the financial realms of the kingdom as what we would call a high roller. He might have been like those recently listed by our media as the most wealthy of men in our world today -- a man whose business acumen and whose breadth of effort compassed a vast array of business enterprises. At any rate, the king certainly would not have allowed a denarii/day common laborer to get that deeply into his debt. So, we have a high roller with vast business holdings and a man who was comfortable living with what he considered a manageable debt load. It is highly likely that we also have a man whose pride of financial accomplishment had eroded his sensitivity to his fellow man...i.e., a spoiled egotist.
Third, when this man was called into account, he either knew, or discovered suddenly, that his cash flow was in such a bind that he simply could not bring the account to satisfaction. In fact, it was determined that about the only way the account could be brought up to even reckoning would be for the man's vast holdings (both business and personal) to all be sold, along with the man himself, the man's wife, and the man's children. The king had it figured that if all this was done, the account could be brought up out of arrearage. So that is what the king ordered. But this was not the crucial thing.
However, the man, seeing his entire life going up in smoke, prostrated himself before his king and pleaded with him for an extension of time. He desperately wanted to persuade the king that the debt really was manageable and that, given some time, he could bring it to payment. And, he may have been right. High rollers very often make huge financial gains. But, the king, on the other hand, knew that financial issues are never certain and that a desperate man might even make the debt larger in his efforts to bring things to terms. So, he gave it some thought, considered the man's pitiable posture and plea, and thought that he would simply dismiss the account for the servant's sake. So he did. But he did not do it as an act that was independent of a larger plan that he had in mind (more about this later). But this, though remarkable, was not the crucial thing.
The servant arose and went out from his king's presence, stunned by this turn of events. Suddenly he had not only secured legitimate ownership of all of his holdings, there was no nagging encumbrance of debt to keep him from making his living even more luxurious than ever. What a wonderful prospect!
But, suddenly, the servant spied a fellow to whom he had loaned an hundred pence. Now, an hundred pence wasn't much money at all. In fact, for a fellow used to dealing in the thousands of talents, it was not even pocket change. At this point, the story takes an amazing turn. Our forgiven debtor suddenly rushes upon the man he has seen and grabs him by the throat and begins to choke him as he demands that the man pay the hundred pence debt. What could he have possibly been thinking? Obviously, the debt was not the real issue--it was too insignificant! So, what was going on? Who knows? Perhaps the high roller was like so many really wealthy people today who don't even blink when handed an $80 check at a restaurant, but then gripe and complain about a rise in their taxes that will mean they have to pay an extra $50 a year to the government. Or, perhaps the debtor was a slacker who squandered his earnings and slipped surreptitiously away every time he saw the man to whom he owed the hundred pence. Perhaps the high roller had been irritated by the debtor on some other level. Or perhaps the high roller was, at the bottom line, simply greed-driven. At any rate, even though we do not know why, we do know that no one starts to choke someone without cause.
However, the man who owes the debt exactly copies the high roller's behavior before his king: He prostrates himself and pleads for an extension of time. But the high roller decides to have the man imprisoned until the debt was paid. We do not know whether he even gave it a thought that a man in prison was not likely to ever be able to pay a monetary debt. This behavior smacks of a merciless attitude.
At any rate, what had happened had been witnessed by others. Some of them went to the king and told him what had happened. That really ticked the king off, so he summoned the man, read him the riot act, and then rescinded his forgiveness of the huge debt!
Rescinded the forgiveness of the debt? How does one do that? I guess kings can do anything they please! At any rate, suddenly the man finds out that his treatment of his fellow man was far more important to his king than he had ever before realized [this is the reason that we said above that the king did not act in forgiveness independently of a larger plan]. And he finds himself on the outs with his king to the point that he is turned over to the tormentors until his debt was paid.
This is a shocking story at four levels. First we are shocked that even a king would so lightly dismiss such a huge debt. Second we are shocked that a forgiven man would be so insensitive to his fellow man that he would choke him and throw him into prison to get something less than pocket change. Third, we are shocked that the king was so focused upon how his servants treat one another that he actually could and did rescind the forgiveness of the debt. And, fourth, we are shocked that Jesus said that His Father was just like that king! In fact, this makes clear just what the crucial thing was that the Father is going to copy: rescinding forgiveness that does not produce forgiveness.
Now, it's interesting to read how many of us interpreters try to fit this story into our theology. A great number of us, claiming to believe in forgiveness by grace, actually dismiss Jesus' claim that His Father is like this king. We say that since forgiveness is by grace, God cannot actually rescind forgiveness that has been extended by grace [this is based upon a concept of grace that extends benefit with no strings attached -- i.e., forgiveness that is independent of a larger plan]. Therefore, say we of this kind of grace, "God's actions here must not be taken to mean that forgiveness is actually rescinded." "It must," say we of this manner of grace, "mean that Jesus was teaching that His Father's actions are to be understood as a severe discipline upon his children because they are unforgiving...but that His actions are not to be understood as an actual deliverance unto the tormentors until the debt is paid"...which is precisely what the text tells us. It seems to be this position that God turns His unforgiving children over to tormentors until they repent of their lack of a forgiving spirit towards those indebted to them, but the text removes repentance and forgiveness from the picture with the words until he should pay all that was due.
But, this kind of interpretation actually tells us more about the interpreters' [mis]understanding of grace than it does about the truth of the text. Why would anyone say that forgiveness by grace denies that the Father of Jesus will rescind His forgiveness from those who receive of His grace and then continue to be evil toward their fellows when this is the precise meaning of this text? Does not Jude write of those who turn the grace of God into lasciviousness and assign them to the suffering of the vengeance of eternal flames? The problem is not that forgiveness is by grace. The problem is that men have twisted grace so far out of its identity that it will not permit them to acknowledge the fact that the Father of Jesus is a forgiveness-rescinding God.
But, how can God rescind His grace-based forgiveness without putting His grace on a performance basis? If I must forgive as I have been forgiven, does not His forgiveness require my forgiving? And if it does require my forgiving, is not my forgiving a grace-founded-work that becomes a condition of my own establishment in forgiveness? This is a sticky wicket! Let's see if we can find an answer that allows grace to be grace and also allows this text to stand as Jesus told it.
First, grace is generally presented in the biblical text as a divine action that has no human meritorious foundations associated with it. Paul clearly says that if the reward is reckoned as the payment of a debt, it is not a reward of grace (Romans 4:4). Paul also clearly says that those who are saved by grace are instructed by that grace to deny ungodliness and worldly lusts and to live in a wholly different manner (Titus 2:11-12). Thus we can say that if a person assigns personal merit to his actions before God, he cannot be said to believe in the true grace of God and we can say that if a person refuses the instruction of grace, he cannot be said to believe in the true grace of God. And, thirdly, Paul also clearly teaches that all grace is not the same grace...i.e., there is some grace that effectually works by the input of a great power (Ephesians 3:7) and there is some grace that can be received in vain (2 Corinthians 6:1), or frustrated (Galatians 2:21). This means that there is a distinction between the extensions of grace by God. Some such extensions come with an effectual power that sees to it that the intentions of grace are fulfilled; others come with a lesser power in attendance that permits the intentions of grace to be blocked. It is grace in any case; but it is not an equally empowered grace in every case.
The result of this teaching about grace results in these conclusions:
Now, how does this affect our understanding of the story? Was the grace of the king extended? Yes, for he dismissed the debt. Was the grace of the king received? Yes, for the servant departed forgiven. Was the intention of grace fulfilled? No, for the servant refused the implications of grace in regard to his life in relation to others. Thus, was the rescinding of the forgiveness of the debt an establishment of forgiveness through works? No, because the rescinding of the forgiveness was the outcome of the recognition by the king that his grace had been frustrated. But this was not an establishment of forgiveness by forgiving. In other words, forgiveness (as an act of grace) is to lead to forgiving (as an expression of grace received), not the other way around, i.e., forgiving in order to be forgiven. This is horse and cart stuff. The horse is God extending grace in forgiveness. The cart is man's forgiving his fellow by grace. If this is turned around, everything goes into confusion. We do not obtain the grace of God in forgiveness by exercising the grace to forgive; rather, we obtain the grace to forgive by receiving the grace of forgiveness.
Those who would like to be forgiven by grace, but continue to treat their fellows in hateful and malicious ways, often react to this teaching by calling the teacher a "heretic" who "redefines biblical terms", but the proof of the pudding is in the eating. The king in our story was absolutely concerned about the way one servant treats another in his kingdom. This absolute interest sponsored the initiation of grace as the way to instill proper treatment of others. But, those who would bask in the grace of being forgiven their debt will wake up suddenly one day without forgiveness if they refuse to allow the initiation of grace to carry through to the purpose of grace. The purpose of grace is to move people to a different way of treating their fellows. When this purpose is rejected, the rejector finds himself rejected because he has rejected grace.
So, was the forgiveness really rescinded, or was it just potentially extended to see how it would affect the debtor? The forgiveness was actually extended and actually rescinded. Jesus said, on one occasion, "...unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required..." (Luke 12:48 AV). This is true of grace as well as any other things given. When a person is given grace, he becomes a debtor to grace (Romans 1:14). Much is required of those to whom grace is given just as Jesus said. Those who reject the requirements find themselves rejecting the grace itself. When that happens, the benefits of grace are rescinded.
Perhaps we should come at this from another direction. Let's ask this question: why does God extend grace to fallen men? Does He do it to deliver them from their sins? Yes. Does He do it only to deliver them from the consequences of their sins? No. God's objective in grace is to deliver fallen men from their sins in this sense: sins are produced by a Law of Sin in the members of the sinner, sins create death under any legitimate sense of justice, and God is not interested in simply eliminating the justice problems. God is interested in eliminating the Law of Sin problems. So, when a person fixates his thinking only upon his being forgiven and refuses to accept the corollary reality that forgiveness is to be the spring-board for blocking the power of the Law of Sin in his life, he has distorted the intention of God in His extension of grace to him. This distortion will, then, permit the distorter to go out from his Forgiver and treat his fellows with a lack of grace. If this happens, the Forgiver will rescind the forgiveness He actually gave. This is the shocking truth of what Jesus taught in His story. We must beware that we do not permit our theological presuppositions to deny Jesus the impact of His story.
But someone will say, "Darrel, what you are saying effectively comes out as a teaching that grace can be rescinded so that one can lose one's position in forgiveness and that seems to mean that you believe that one can lose his eternal salvation unless he consistently exercises grace to his fellow man. How can you teach that justification is exclusively based upon what Jesus has done and teach this also?"
What is my answer?
Well, let's see what the story tells us. In the first place, the servant is a real servant of the King; in fact, he was most likely a specially favored servant to the King. In other words, this is "internal-kingdom-truth", not "migration-into-the-kingdom-truth". What I mean here is this: Jesus didn't teach this as an evangelistic truth; He taught it as internal-kingdom reality. Peter wanted to know how often he had to forgive his brother, not some foreigner. He wanted to know how to deal with the problems of sin between brothers, not the problems of sin between sinners, or between a sinner and a saint.
In the second place, this story was told after Jesus established the protocol for dealing with sin within the church; not without (Matthew 18:15-20). What this means is that Jesus was dealing with the habit of God in dealing with those whose justification rests solely upon the Person and works of Jesus Christ alone. There is, after all, a distinction between being justified and being forgiven as a habitual practice within the fellowship of those who are justified. What Jesus was teaching is that a believer who is unforgiving will find himself unforgiven when his lack of forgiveness reaches the ears and eyes of God. What will that mean? That his justification is rescinded? No, that is not the teaching, or the point, of this story. The story says that if a person is unforgiven by God, he will be tormented until the debt is fully paid. In other words, the danger here is not the rescinding of justification, which would end with the person being cast into the Lake of Fire; rather, the danger here is that the quality of one's experience of the life and joy of God will spin down into an experience of the bitter dregs of corruption, just as Paul said in Galatians 6:8, "For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting" (AV).
However, just because this story is not about losing one's justification does not mean that its "punch" is gone. The particular danger in the story is real. And what is that danger? That God will not accept belated repentance after the fact. What do I mean? What I mean is what Jesus actually taught: if one refuses to forgive a brother who seeks more time to make things right, the one refusing will find himself without forgiveness until his debt is paid. Let me illustrate. David discovered that there were unremovable consequences to the mistreatment of others. When he mistreated others, God levied certain life-long penalties upon David from which He never delivered him. The sword never departed from David's experience once the behavior was established. By the same token, in a letter that was designed to establish justification by grace alone through faith alone [Galatians], the apostle Paul clearly taught that we will reap according to our sowing...be it sowing by the Spirit or sowing by the flesh. The danger is real: our lives will be irremediably affected by faulty sowing practices, especially when those sowing practices are accompanied by an unwillingness to forgive as we have been forgiven. If I want God to mitigate my harvest by extending forgiveness to me, I must be willing to mitigate another's harvest by extending forgiveness to him. If I refuse, my experience will be the bitter dregs of torment until the debt is paid. The story never says that I can return later in repentance once I have refused forgiveness to my brother. Jesus' warning is profound: subject a fellow believer to the consequences of justice in the face of his repentant appeal for the opportunity to make things right and you will find yourself involved in a long-term torment until your own debt is paid.
Take Esau as an example: he sold his birthright for a single meal and the damage was irremediable.