Few passages will strike at the heart of the Christian like Matthew 18:21-35. In this section of Matthew we find the Lord Jesus teaching on the important theme of forgiveness of our brothers (and sisters). I believe there are few lessons that are tougher than the lessons that Jesus taught us on forgiveness. For example, how difficult it actually is to walk out Matthew 5:38-48. The personal issues we face in life, we often believe that we can deal with them in our own strength. But when it comes to issues such as forgiveness of others, especially our enemies, we have a difficult time.
But Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness of others is crystal clear in that our personal relationships do in fact determine our relationship with God. Matthew 6:12 says, “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (ESV), and Paul the Apostle’s words in Romans 12:14-21 are words that focus our relationship with God upon our dealings with men as well. Even marriage has an impact on our relationship with God, for Peter wrote, “Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered” (1 Peter 3:7; ESV).
In Matthew 18:21-35 Jesus responds to Peter’s question, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” (v.21) to which Jesus answers, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven” (v.22). Peter’s question came from a Jewish tradition of forgiving someone who sins against you seven times, to which Jesus basically responds by saying, “Forgiveness cannot be numbered.” Forgiveness of others is based on how God forgives us. Paul wrote in Colossians 3:12-13, “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other, as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (ESV).
But the passage in Matthew 18:21-35 also is a tough passage pointed at Calvinism’s teaching on eternal security. Essentially Matthew 18:21-35 gives fortitude to the Arminian teaching on conditional security of the believer. Calvinism teaches perseverance of the saints based on God’s sovereign election, but Arminianism teaches that perseverance is necessary for eternal life (Hebrews 10:19-39). As Peter wrote, “You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.” (2 Peter 3:17-18; ESV). How does Matthew 18:21-35 uphold the Arminian teaching on necessary perseverance? Let us look to the text.
1. The Master’s Mercy (vv.21-27) – You will notice first that Jesus focuses this parable on the Master who forgives his servant’s debt. The debt was outstanding and there was no chance of it ever being paid back in this servant’s lifetime. One talent alone was worth about twenty years of wages for a laborer and this servant owed ten thousand talents! The servant, however, humbled himself before the master, begging him to be patient and assuring he would repay the debt (which both knew would never happen). The master has pity on the servant and completely forgives him his debt. Imagine the joy! This is just what has happened to us as well. We have been forgiven of all our sins in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 1:7; 1 John 1:7-10). God has made His only begotten Son our sin offering (2 Corinthians 5:21). God has had mercy on us and has forgiven us through Christ (Romans 6:23). What mercy comes from God! O the blessing of laying my head down at night knowing that all my sins are forgiven!
2. The Servant’s Sin (vv.22-32) – You would expect that since this servant has been forgiven such a large debt that he would show gratitude have mercy toward his fellow servants, but this is not the case. In verse 28 the forgiven servant finds a fellow servant who owes him less than half a year’s wages, and yet because the servant could not repay, he has him thrown in prison. This man’s actions are taken back to the master by other servants. This wicked servant (v.32) has sinned against his master by showing a lack of forgiveness after being forgiven of such a great debt.
Some of the worst people I have been attacked by have been fellow servants of Christ. In the United States I have never been physically attacked for my faith nor have any unbelievers given me a hard time for being a Christian (despite some jokes about me here and there). Overall life for a Christian in the West is decent. It is often fellow Christians (so called) who seek to do the most damage to other Christians. Christians fighting Christians is what plagues the Western Church. And by that I don’t just mean theological disagreements. We can agree to disagree and yet still enjoy fellowship. I mean Christians who turn bitter and unforgiving toward others because they were hurt or they didn’t like the way something turned out. This “root of bitterness” (Hebrews 12:15) can destroy us if we don’t guard against it.
3. The Master’s Just Judgement (vv.32-35) – The Master is just in turning the forgiven servant back to his former sins. The servant’s debt comes back upon him. Notice the strong words of Jesus, “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (v.35; ESV).
What does this verse imply? I will leave this open to you. Does this mean that our sins can destroy us and cause us to lose our salvation? For many, that answer is a quick “No,” but Jesus makes forgiveness of our own sins dependent on our forgiveness of others. Our former sins can come back to haunt us (see 2 Peter 1:9) if we don’t overcome them by the power of God. Keep in mind that salvation is through faith in Christ and continues by faith in Christ. Without Christ, I am lost (Romans 8:9, 12-13).
One final note about verse 35 is that Jesus says we must forgive others from our heart. Notice that this implies forgiveness that is deeper than from our mouths or from our heads. When the Bible uses “heart” it is implying the very seat of man, our deepest being, our true self. We are to forgive from the very substance of who we are and not just with a verbal “I forgive you.” The old adage, “I forgive you but I can’t forget” must be thrown out!
Conclusion – Matthew 18:21-35 strongly teaches us that our human relationships are important to God. This passage teaches us that perseverance of the saints involves more than just having a working knowledge of the gospel, but it implies that the gospel must radiate through our entire being. We are not only to love God with all our hearts, minds, soul, and strength (Mark 12:30), but we are to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31; ESV). The gospel must not just change our relationship with God (Romans 5:1), but also with men as well (Galatians 5:13-15).
[Link to original post and comments on Roy Ingle’s blog, Arminian Today]