Union University R.G. Lee Society of Fellows

"The Christian Grace
of Forgiving"
Matthew 18:21-35

by Rev. Jerry Massey
Pastor, First Baptist Church
Paris, TN

Rev. Jerry Massey

The Christian grace of forgiving is an essential component in the spiritual health and healing of God’s children. In a counseling session a young wife sits alongside her husband. She sobs as she relates her dismay of a “cold war” marriage. They question how two people who love the Lord, attend church faithfully, serve in the church, and want to have a happy marriage can be so miserable together. It becomes evident the cause for her unhappiness is rooted in an abusive experience suffered in childhood. Over the years she has cultivated an unforgiving spirit toward her childhood family, and, in the process, has reaped the harvest of a severely injured marriage. In another setting a pastor wonders why his energy level has diminished and why he dreads going into the study. Why is it that the mere mention of a particular man’s name causes him to become tense and depressed? These symptoms also stem from the lingering effects of an unforgiving heart. The reason for many Christians’ lack of discipleship and productivity for the Lord can be directly related to an unforgiving spirit. The church proclaims volumes about forgiveness; we just sometimes have difficulty practicing it.

As the world’s greatest teacher, Jesus used His incomparable story of the unforgiving servant to instruct us in the Christian grace of forgiving. In Colossians 3 the apostle Paul lists the graces of our new nature in Christ Jesus, and “forgiving others” is included. Our Lord teaches us to emulate this grace by His very own demonstrations. Forgiving others should not be some mere lofty ideal, but a practical reality. The need to forgive should not be ignored either. Psychologist Dr. Naomi Rachel Raymond emphatically warns, “There is no spiritual healing without forgiveness. Non-forgiveness is a state of spiritual isolation.” Jesus shares this parable of the unforgiving servant to teach us how to maintain our spiritual health in trying times.

Jesus gives us the command to forgive others. “…‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven.’ ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I cancelled 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?’” (vss. 22, 32-33, NIV) Jesus is not suggesting that we forgive; He is commanding us to forgive. When Jesus died upon the cross for our sins, His blood covered all of our sins. Jesus paid it all covering every sin…no exceptions! Can there be a greater motivation for forgiving others? Just as we have been forgiven, Jesus expects us to forgive our fellowman. Jesus prepared His disciples for a world in which they would experience persecutions, afflictions, and abuse. In relation to this warning Paul exhorts us in Ephesians 4:32 to forgive one another, “just as in Christ God forgave you.” Dr. Oliver B. Green comments at this point, “As believers and followers of the Lord Jesus we should be strong enough and big enough to forgive, without demanding apology on the part of those who have offended us. It may be painful, it may take an extra portion of grace, but Christians should forgive, remembering that God has forgiven us for the sake of His precious Son.”

This parable fully illustrates the vast difference between what God forgives in comparison to what we are called upon to forgive. By economic comparisons of today the unforgiving servant had been forgiven a million-dollar debt, but was unwilling to forgive the meager sum of twenty dollars owed to him by his fellow servant. Oh, what a mystery man is. The forgiven one who had moments before begged on his knees and received mercy, now portrays a brutal tyrant and unmercifully throws his fellow servant into prison until the indebtedness can be paid. How callous an unforgiving heart can become. “…‘I cancelled 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?’” Charles Haddon Spurgeon reminds us, “The inference from such abounding generosity was clear, strong, unanswerable. There would be no greater thing done for the debtor, so free, so noble, so perfect; that it ought to have produced a great effect upon him, and have led him in his measure to imitate the royal example. Hard is the heart that such a fire of love could not soften.” Peter asked Jesus for a just measuring rod to calculate the number of times we ought to forgive; but Jesus told him to simply practice forgiveness and forget the measuring rod.

Dr. R. G. Lee tells the story of a mother crossing a prairie with her baby in her arms. “As she journeyed along, she saw in the distance a dark cloud of smoke; small at first but gradually increasing in size until it grew to immense proportions. She knew it was a prairie fire. She saw she could not possibly escape the scorching and singeing tongues of the flame because it was traveling with lighting-like speed. She prepared for the inevitable. As the fiery billows rolled like a seething mass across the prairie, she knelt down, dug a hole as quickly and as deeply as she could and laid her baby in the hole. As the roaring flames, like merciless demons approached, she threw herself across the hole in the ground. In a moment it was all over. Later her charred body was found over the spot. But the baby was alive. She had given herself for her babe. Her sacrifice saved the babe from a fiery death. Likewise Christ died. With His scourge-cut, thorn-pierced, beaten and crucified body, Jesus COVERED us from the burning wrath of God who, as to sins, is a consuming fire.” Oh, what a matchless Savior. How it must break His heart when we fail to forgive others after He has forgiven us so much.

Jesus warns us of the consequences of an unforgiving heart. “In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.” (vs. 34, NIV) The king’s righteous indignation was stirred. He cast the unforgiving servant into prison for his unwillingness to forgive his fellow servant’s debt. Just as Jesus warned His disciples, we, too, cannot expect to march through the battlefield of life without being wounded. Sooner or later we can expect somebody to hurt us, perhaps unintentionally, but often maliciously with intent. Some will lie about us, insult us, slight us, and even work against us. What shall we do with all of these slights, insults, and offenses? Jesus warns us to forgive them lest we imprison ourselves. Dr. Lee suggests that “a single evil resentment weighs more than a ton of lead. It is a millstone around a man’s neck and will drown him in the depths of the sea.” Dr. Warren Wiersbe adds, “the world’s worst prison is the prison of an unforgiving heart. If we refuse to forgive others, then we are only imprisoning ourselves and causing our own torment.” Jesus was not implying that our salvation is in jeopardy. Our sins were forgiven at Calvary and that will not change, but when we are unforgiving, our fellowship with the Lord is distanced. What greater torment is there for the child of God? We cannot be right with God and unforgiving at the same time.

The painful consequences of such a self-imposed bondage are real. Dr. David Vickery, Professor of Psychology at Union University, states, “When we think of resentments, hurts of the past, etc., certain chemicals are released in our bodies that cause us to be affected physically and emotionally, hurting ourselves as the by-product.” On the other hand “forgiveness frees the forgiver,” as psychologist Dr. Robin Karsagean stresses. “Unforgiveness is like being chained to the person you resent. When we forgive others to free ourselves it is an act of self-love. It is not that we just let them off the hook; we let ourselves go free. Forgiveness is not condoning another’s behavior, but it is a change of heart. When we forgive we may not be able to forget as such, but when we remember the hurt, our heart sees the hurt differently. The emotional discharge will be different than before.” Whatever secondary gains we cherish by clutching resentments are outweighed by the blessings of peace, joy, answered prayers, and usefulness to the Lord that might be sacrificed. When you place a seed into the ground its nature is to germinate fully to maturity. But if you inhibit the seedling as it sprouts upward, you will raise a deformed plant. Such is the prognosis for the child of God who builds a self-imposed wall of unforgiveness around himself. We become spiritually weak, sick, and deformed. How can we avoid this self-inflicted imprisonment and genuinely forgive such hurts?

Jesus provides the cure for an unforgiving heart. “‘This is how My Heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.’” (vs. 35) We need to always remember that the same God who instantaneously cleansed us of all of our sin in salvation can just as instantaneously cleanse us from the sin of an unforgiving heart. The Great Physician’s prescription for an unforgiving heart is to forgive. To forgive is to pardon someone for an act of offense. As the parable implies, forgiveness comes by releasing others of the debt incurred when they have offended or hurt us. Forgiveness can be offered face to face or through a letter mailed or never mailed. Those who have offended us may not be desiring our forgiveness. Nevertheless, we still need to forgive them, and it needs to happen immediately to prevent the seeds of bitterness and resentment from taking root in our hearts. Charles Stanley acknowledges, “I rarely counsel people to confess their forgiveness to those who have hurt them if the other persons have not asked for it. God forgave us long before we ever asked for it. He has even forgiven us for things we may never recognize need to be forgiven. In the same way we can forgive others of things they will never know about.” Dr.Vickery explains that when we forgive “it is not letting the offender go of the responsibility of their actions, but not holding it against them.” We may not feel like forgiving at the time, but we are not to act on our feelings. To forgive is a choice we make. We will to forgive. We choose to forgive.

Sometimes we fail to forgive because we think to forgive means we have to feel close to the offender. Such closeness would be nice, but as in cases of abuse it may not be possible. An abused person should not feel pressured to have such a relationship because “the offender’s actions made the choice not to be close to the offended.” Joseph was able to bridge the gap between him and his brothers, but that is not always the case, nor always in the best interest of the victim. David was unable to be close to King Saul for obvious reasons, but in his heart he forgave him and gave honor to the king’s position. Jesus’ testimony at the cross teaches us that it is the Christian nature to forgive. In the animal world revenge is the norm. When an animal crosses over into another’s territory it can expect to be attacked; but as children of God we are partakers of Christ’s nature and it is the nature of Christ to forgive. The only way to heal the pain that will not heal itself is to forgive the person who hurt you. When you release the wrongdoer from the wrong, you cut a malignant tumor out of your inner life. You set a prisoner free—yourself. This is what Jesus was doing on the cross as He prayed, “‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing’….” A. T. Robertson says that the imperfect verb tense used in the text means that “Jesus kept on praying” this prayer every time an offense was hurled upon Him. As they smote His face, as they ridiculed His claims, as they beat upon Him, as He carried His cross, as they drove the nails, as they pierced His side, and as He died, He kept on praying. He kept on forgiving and forgiving.p. 30. No doubt as Peter watched the battle of the cruelty of sin and the compassion of the Savior, he must have been reminded of what Jesus inferred when He said to forget the measuring rod. Jesus practiced what He taught. How beautiful is forgiveness!

Forgiveness is a must if we are to be healthy spiritually, emotionally, socially and physically. We must desire and choose to be healed. May we allow God’s love to wipe away the tears of our hurts and restore us to wholeness as we forgive others. Before Louis XII became King of France he suffered great indignities at the hand of his cousin, Charles VIII. He was slandered, thrown into prison, kept in chains and in constant fear of death. When he succeeded Charles to the throne, however, his close friends and advisors urged him to seek revenge for all these shameful atrocities. But Louis would not hear to any of the suggestions of these whisperers in his court. Instead they were amazed to find him preparing a list of all of the names of the men guilty of crimes against him. Behind each name, he was placing a red cross. His enemies, hearing of this, were filled with dread alarm. They thought that the sign of a cross meant a sentence to death on the gallows. One after the other they fled the court and their beloved country. But King Louis learning of their flight called for a special session of the court to explain his list of names and the little red crosses. “Be content, and do not fear,” he said in a most cordial tone. “The cross which I drew by your names is not a sign of punishment, but a pledge of forgiveness and a seal for the sake of the crucified Savior, who upon His cross forgave all of His enemies, prayed for them, and blotted out the handwriting that was against them.”

“May the cross, therefore claim us.
May the cross haunt us.
May the cross lay compulsion upon us.
May the cross compel us to forgive.”

Written by Jerry Massey
Pastor, First Baptist Church
Paris, TN


Rev. Jerry Massey has been pastor of First Baptist Church, Paris, Tennessee since 1973. He holds a BA degree from Howard Payne University and a M. Div. From Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He and his wife, Patricia have three grown children.

Joanna Moore, Campus Ministries & Church Services

R.G. Lee Center for Christian Ministry