By Pastor Glenn Pease
About one hundred and sixty five years ago, in Jan. of 1835, the United States of America became the only major nation in modern history to do a certain thing. It was a thing she would love to be able to do again, for she paid off her national debt. It was done by the sale of public lands in the West. Unfortunately, that was a one time solution, and that was the only year our nation had no debt. Today the national debt is a major problem. Personal debt is also a major social issue. Studies have shown that the heavy burden of debt is a primary cause for depression, alcoholism, marital conflict and divorce, and all of the other negative effects of these problems.
Even for those who are wise, and do not get in over their heads, there is still the constant pressure of debt. We can all identify with the poet who wrote,
Tomorrow never comes, they say,
But all such talk is idle gush,
For when we have a debt to pay,
Tomorrow gets here with a rush.
Dead is not all bad, for most of us would be riding horseback to our caves, instead of riding in cars to our homes, if it were not for the possibility of debt. Debt has its good side, and even its bad side has caused a lot of good. People hate it so much that it motivates them to work hard to avoid it. Horace Greeley hated debt, and he said, "I would rather be a convict in a state prison, a slave in a rice swamp, than to pass through life under the horror of debt." He so hated it that it drove him to work hard and become a very successful editor of the New York Tribune.
Sr. Walter Scott wrote most of his great novels in order to wipe out a terrible debt. Mark Twain lectured all over the world to pay off a huge debt he had acquired. Howard Ruff, one of the leading financial advisers in America, was once in debt for half a million dollars. His father took his own life because of being in debt, but Howard went from bankruptcy to wealth and fame. He paid off every cent of his debt. He hated it so much he was driven to defeat it, and not be defeated by it. Debt can be a powerful motivator, and it does not always have to be hated. Paul was motivated to become a great preacher and church planter because of a great debt he owed. He wrote in Rom. 1:14, "I am a debtor both to Greeks and to the Jews, both to the wise and the foolish." He was debt driven disciple. He owed everything to the grace of Christ, who saved him, and the least he could do was to devote his life to sharing the good news with a lost world.
Debts can have a good side in the life of a pagan. Dr. Walter Judd, as a young missionary doctor in China, had to chose to treat kindly, or coolly, a very cruel and wicked chief of bandits. Lu Hsin-Ming led men who looted and killed with no respect for life. He became ill, and when the Chinese medicine did not help, he was brought to the hospital. Dr. Judd treated him with kindness, and after a few days he recovered. Some months later word came that the Nationalist Army was on its way to drive out the bandits. Everyone knew this meant terror for the city, for the bandits would rob, rape, and destroy, before they fled. Instead, the chief came to Dr. Judd and thanked him. He even paid the $170.00 hospital bill, and marched off without violence. He had planned to take Dr. Judd as a hostage, but his kindness in treating him changed his mind. He was a cut-throat pagan, but he felt the power of an honest debt, and his indebtedness motivated him to be kind in return.
Debt is not all bad. Paul even says in Rom. 13:8, "Owe no man anything, but to love one another." The debt of love we owe to all, and this is a good debt, for it motivates us to be more Christlike. Someone even found a good side to the national debt. It is almost a certain guarantee that future generations of Americans will never become ancestor worshipers. This is what you call making the best of a bad situation. But the fact is, there is an optimistic side to debts. The pessimistic side is due to the fact that debts can become so excessive that they depress, defeat, and destroy. Debts can be deadly, and that is the kind of debts that Jesus is dealing with in this prayer.
They are debts we owe to God. Sins are debts, because when we sin we fail to give to God what we owe Him. He is the giver of life, and the giver of all the laws of life. Man has an obligation to obey those laws. Adam and Eve had an obligation to do what God commanded. When they did not do it, they fell, and that fall into sin was a fall into debt. They owed God what they did not pay, and when you owe what you can't pay, you are in debt. Notice, I said, when you owe what you can't pay. If you can pay what you owe, you are not seriously in debt. It is when you can't pay what you owe that you are seriously in debt. That is what sin is-unrepayable debt.
You owe God 100% obedience. So if you failed only once, for a few moments, there is no way you can make up for it. Since all the rest of your life is already owed to God in obedience, how can you find any time to make up for one disobedience? There is no way, and so fallen man is hopelessly indebted to God. The idea that if my good works outweigh my bad ones, I am acceptable to God, is nonsense, in the light of our debts. Try making this work on the level of your earthly debts. God to your bank, or any creditor, and see if he will buy your theology. You simply explain that you have checked over all your payments, and you have discovered that you paid three times for everyone that you missed. Therefore, he has no right to condemn you as a poor risk, and a debtor, for your good deeds far outweigh your bad ones. You know that such insanity could get you committed. Nobody says, if the good outweighs the bad, that eliminates the bad, and makes it of no effect.
The bad has to be dealt with, and the debts have to be covered. So it is with our debts to God. Man has a number of ways of resolving the issue of debts. He has loans, reductions, consolidations of payments, or even bankruptcy. With God there is only one way to deal with our debts. Since they cannot be paid off by us, we are already bankrupt, as far as having any resources to eliminate the debt, so there is only one answer, and that is forgiveness.
Horace said, there is a major rule for drama. Do not bring a god into the play unless the plot is so hopelessly tangled up that only a god can unravel it. This is precisely what happened in the human drama. God followed this very rule, and tried to work with man through the law to resolve the sin problem. But as we know, all the blood of all the Old Testament sacrifices never even paid the debt of one sinners single sin. It was a hopeless mess, and that is why God sent His Son into the world, for He, and He alone, could unravel the tangled mess, and make it possible for man to have the hope of forgiveness.
Only He could offer an infinite sacrifice able to cover all the debts of man. When Jesus laid down His perfect sinless life, a value greater to God than our minds could ever conceive, He deposited in the bank of heaven that which is available for paying off the debt of every human being. By trusting Him as Savior we gain the privilege that is beyond comprehension, to come daily to God, and have our debts dissolved, and sins forgiven. The poet wrote,
Jesus paid it all,
All the debts I owe,
And nothing, either great or small,
Remains for me to do.
This is true, for there is nothing we can do to add to that infinite account that pays our debt. But Jesus still requires our involvement in this debt dissolving process. It is a part of the Lord's Prayer because He expects us to have a daily desire for the forgiveness of our sins. There are two things that Jesus emphasizes, and which He wants us to be aware of in our daily spiritual journey. They are:
1. The consciousness of our debt's demands.
2. The condition for our debt's dissolving.
Let's examine these two in some detail.
I. THE CONSCIOUSNESS OF OUR DEBT'S DEMANDS.
It is something of a paradox to say Jesus paid it all, and yet see here that He demands that we remain conscious of our debt to God, and that we pray continuously for forgiveness. Everyday you are to acknowledge you are a dependent child by asking your heavenly Father for daily bread, and then follow up by acknowledging you are a defiled child, by asking for forgiveness.
Is this something on the order of the husband and wife bickering, he says, "I thought we agreed to forgive and forget." She responded, "I have, but I just don't want you to forget I've forgiven and forgotten." We have a hard time getting rid of old debts, and even when they are paid off, we remain conscious of them, and they weigh us down. The world is full of people who cannot let go of their sin that God has forgiven and forgotten. It is folly to remember what God forgets, and many a Christian has emotional problems because they do it.
This is not what Jesus is teaching us to do here at all. He does not want us to remain conscious of old debts that have been forgiven, but He does want us to be conscious of the fact that we are always entering into new debts, and we need to be aware that this demands a response on our part. The idea that because Jesus paid it all, I can just forget about it all together, and not bother with confession, and seeking forgiveness, is not an idea from the mind of Christ. By this prayer, He says just the opposite. Sin is a perpetual part of the Christian life, and, therefore, forgiveness must be perpetually sought. The money in your bank account is available to you, but you still have to ask for it. If you need it and don't ask, they will not send it to meet your need. So it is with the bank of heaven. Ask, and you shall receive.
Jesus, by saying we ought to pray perpetually for forgiveness, makes it clear that no Christian will ever be sinless in this life. It may be possible to go for some time with no conscious awareness of sin, but the sin of omission is ever with us. All of us fall short of the glory of God. If you are less than what you could be, you are in debt to God, and not a day goes by that we do not incur debt on this level. Remember, this prayer is not for the bad guys. This is the prayer Jesus taught His disciples. It is for the people of God, the body of Christ, and Jesus says these good and godly people are to pray perpetually for the forgiveness of sin.
As long as you are in the body that needs daily bread, you will also need daily forgiveness. First we say give, and then we say forgive. The give and the forgive are so close, because they are linked in life. Adam and Eve were given their daily bread in abundance, but they abused God's gift and ate what was forbidden. The result was, they now needed forgiveness. Every good gift that God gives can be a potential road to debt where we need His pardon.
Jesus wants us to be as conscious of our daily debt, as our daily bread, for forgiveness is as vital to our health and well being as is the bread for the body. Only when we stop sinning can we stop seeking forgiveness, and that means we can never stop asking for forgiveness. John says, "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness." But what if we don't confess? What if we do not acknowledge our debt? It means we pay interest on the debt. Jesus paid it all, but if we do not claim our rights to His account, then, even as redeemed Christians, we will pay interest on that debt. Without forgiveness, and the feeling of sin being dissolved, the Christian can have all the same problems as the non-Christian, who have no solution to their sin problem. It is very simple: The man with a shovel who does not use it, has just as much snow on his driveway, as the man who has no shovel.
Two soldiers eating together in an army base in Japan got to talking, and one asked the other why he had stayed in the army as a career man. The sergeant said, "Did you ever hear of the card game called Rook?" "Yes, I know the game," the private answered.
"Well, I was playing with my family when my father and I got into an argument. I left home and I've never been back." He never lacked daily bread, but he lacked the food of forgiveness. That could have reconciled him and his father. This kind of thing happens all the time, and Jesus is saying, if we will be conscious that we are always part of the problem, and follow the rule of admitting and confessing that we are debtors, we can prevent the breakdown of relationships, through the power of forgiveness. Next Jesus emphasizes,
II. THE CONDITION FOR OUR DEBTS DISSOLVING.
There is a rule that must be followed in being forgiven. There is never a lack of funds to pay our debt, for that is infinite. There is never an unwillingness on the part of God to forgive. He delights in mercy, and no matter how often you come to ask, He never gets weary of it. 7 times 70 does not exhaust his willingness to forgive. Jesus implies that you need daily forgiveness, and so God has no problem with the frequency of our sin and need of forgiveness.
The problem is that we often do not want to fulfill the one condition for being forgiven, for that is the condition that we be forgiving. Only forgivers are forgiven. Jesus makes a special point of this. After the prayer, He makes this comment in verse 14 and 15. "For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins." Tennyson was right when he wrote,
Oh, Man, forgive thy mortal foe,
Nor ever strike him blow for blow!
For all the souls on earth that live
To be forgiven must forgive.
Forgive him seventy times and seven,
For all the blessed souls in heaven,
Are both forgivers and forgiven.
You have to be both, or you are neither. If you are not a forgiver, you will not be forgiven. Any sin becomes a temporary unforgivable sin if the sinner is unwilling to forgive another. This seems like a simple enough condition to fulfill to have your own debt dissolved. It seems fair and just, yet it is obviously one of the hardest things for men to do. The very fact that Jesus had to go out of His way to stress this point, by making special comment on it, makes it clear, it is hard for men to grasp this truth. The fact that it is repeated so often in different context reveals it is a truth that has to come at men from a variety of directions in order to penetrate.
In Matt. 18 Jesus tells a long parable to teach this very truth. The king had mercy on his servant who owed him a large debt, and when he fell on his knees and pleaded for time, the king canceled the debt, and let him go a free man. This man went away and found another servant who owed him a pittance in comparison to what he had just been forgiven. When he demanded payment, his fellow servant fell on his knees, and he begged for time. But he refused, and had the man thrown into prison. When word got back to the master of what he had done, it made him so angry he took the unforgiving wretch, and threw him into prison. Jesus concludes this story by saying, "This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart."
This is not exactly good news. We like the forgiveness, but the condition can be a pain, for this two way street often goes against the grain of our pride and prejudice. We don't like to be overly merciful and forgiving to those who sin against us. We do not see the enormous pride this reflects. It is all right for God to forgive offenses against Himself, but we don't see why we should have to be forgiving toward those who gave the audacity to offend us. God may only have one unforgivable sin, but we may have dozens of them. The unforgiving Christian does not realize that he is putting himself above God, and God will not tolerate this.
In Mark 11:25 Jesus teaches this truth again. "And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins." If you are an unforgiving person, you have lost the key to the bank of heaven. You have burned the bridge by which forgiveness comes to you. This is hard for us to grasp, and that is why it is repeated so often. We are like the naive traveler on his first plane flight to New York. The pilot came on and announced that one of the engines went out. The result would be, they would be an hour late for landing. Later he announced a second engine was out, and now they would be two hours late. Still later came the same announcement when the third engine went out. When the pilot announced that the last engine was out, the guy responded, "Good grief! Now I suppose we will be up here all night." He was not really grasping the reality of the situation. So it is with Christians who assume that dissolving their debts is only a prayer away, while they ignore the clear and frequent teaching that we can only get what we give.
Jesus stresses it again in Luke 6:37-38, "Forgive and you will be forgiven. Give and it will be given to you." Forgiveness is like electricity in that, it will not flow in where it cannot flow out. If there is no complete circuit, it will not start. So it is with God's forgiveness. If you do not become a channel of forgiveness, which flows out to those who sin against you, it is like hitting the switch that cuts off the flow of God's forgiveness to you. This means you can become deader than the Dead Sea. It has inflow, but no outflow. The Christian who is unforgiving has neither, and this is that state where God's grace does not flow in or out of that life. That is why Jesus is perpetually warning His disciples about this danger.
Forgiveness is a great treasure, but you cannot hoard it, and keep it for yourself. You either share it, or yours evaporates. God made it that way. The only way you can keep it is by giving it away. If you hold it, clutch it, and refuse to share it, you lose it. But let go and let God's forgiving spirit flow through you to others, and your cup will be overflowing. The measure you give is the measure you get.
If anybody tells you your relationship to man has nothing to do with your relationship to God, you are talking to a blind man. It has everything to do with it. Unless you are a branch office, where men can come and draw on the forgiveness of Christ to dissolve their debts, the bank of heaven will not release its funds to pay your debts. Can you imagine the Federal Reserve Bank sending funds to a branch that has closed its doors, and refuses to make loans to people to cover their debts? No way! The bank has to let others use their resources, or they will not get resources to use. God has built this into His whole system of mercy as well. Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy. Every prayer for pardon is also a promise to pardon. This means we are debtors both to God and man. We are always under obligation to forgive those who seek our forgiveness.
This sounds tough to swallow, and most people get frightened by the impossible. They think this means we have to be forgiving of everyone regardless of their attitude. Not even God, in His infinite mercy, does this. God does not forgive those who do not repent and seek His forgiveness. Jesus did not pray at the temple, where they were ripping people off, Father forgive them. Instead, He tipped over their tables, and chased them out with a whip. If some of these money changers came to Jesus after this, and said, Master we are sorry for this abuse, please forgive us. He would have forgiven them. The point is, if you are being treated unjustly by someone, and they love it, and refuse to stop, and ask your forgiveness, you are not in debt to them. You do not owe forgiveness to those who refuse to live in peace. God does not owe forgiveness to Satan. It is not beyond His grace, but it is beyond Satan's nature to seek it, and there is no forgiveness where there is no will to seek it. The Prodigal never would have tasted his father's forgiveness had he stayed with the pigs.
Just because the bank is full of money, does not mean it will pay your debts. You have to have some claim on that money to be able to write checks, and pay off your obligations. Christ has made infinite resources available, but you must fulfill this condition to have access to those resources. When you pray, Father forgive me, you are not saying, do it because I promise to never sin again, or because I am resolved to do better, or because I'll try to pay you back, or one hundred and one other reasons. You pray this prayer knowing it can only be answered when you are saying, forgive me because I share the treasure of your forgiving grace with other debtors. Forgive me, because I am a forgiver. Forgive me, because I have the debt dissolving desire.