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Exploring the Tension between Biblical Forgiveness and Justice

by Kevin Briggins


It seems like everywhere you turn, Christians are wrestling with the reality of past racial injustice, both in the church and in the broader society. However, I’ve often been troubled by Christians’ neglect of the Bible’s instructions for living with one another in the community. Often, I find that Christians approach repentance, forgiveness, and justice with other Christians in much the same way as non-Christians: using approaches directly drawn from secular ideas largely contradict Scripture.


What does Scripture have to say about forgiveness and reconciliation among Christians? Let’s examine the parable Jesus told in Matthew 18 of the unforgiving servant.


“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. (Matthew 18:15–17)


Throughout this chapter, Jesus has been teaching his disciples about the Kingdom of Heaven and how they are to deal with sin and temptation. In these verses, Jesus tells them how to approach someone in the church who has sinned against them, and he tells them when to restore them as a fellow believer or when to cast them out as an unrepentant sinner. These verses also establish the context for Peter’s question that follows, and the parable that Jesus tells in response.


“If your brother sins against you.”


Note that Jesus knows Christians will sin against each other. Yes, we have been redeemed, and yes, we have been born again, but we are still susceptible to our sinful flesh, and Christians are capable of causing great pain and hurt to one another. Still, this doesn’t mean we need to confront each other over every single slight or offense. 1 Peter 4:8 tells us that love covers a multitude of sins, so there will be times when we will have to love each other despite our offenses and imperfections.


The steps taken in this passage seem to imply a serious offense—enough that the offender would be in danger of leaving the faith because of the sin. If the person fails to repent, Jesus says, the issue is to be brought before the entire church. But if they do repent, Jesus tells us we have gained them back. It’s as if they we’re in danger of leaving the faith because of this sin. But if they repent, the relationship is restored, and the person is restored to full fellowship. This is the context for Peter’s question that follows.


UNLIMITED GRACE or UNLIMITED FORGIVENESS


Peter comes up to Jesus in verse 21 and says, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” What Peter is really asking is, what are the depths of grace to which I am to forgive? How much grace am I to give? The context from verse 15 is the person who has sinned and repented. If that person repents but continues to sin against me, how many times do I have to forgive them? As many as seven times? To Peter’s credit, he went way beyond the Jewish standard of his day. The religious leaders taught that you only had to forgive three times, but Peter more than doubles it to seven.


Even so, such righteousness falls short of God’s standard. Jesus replies in verse 22, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.”. The literal translation reads “seventy times seven,” which would be 490 times—but whether it’s 77 or 490 isn’t the point. Jesus is saying there is no limit to the grace we are to give to a brother or sister in Christ who has repented. It is an unlimited grace, and, as we will see in the text, we give unlimited grace because we have received unlimited grace.


He then begins the parable.


“Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. (Matthew 18:23–24)


A king has called in his servants to sit down with him to go over the books and see how well or poorly they’ve handled his money. This is like the IRS auditing an accountant. After going through all the receipts and loans, it’s determined that this one servant owes 10,000 talents—an incredible amount of money—and it’s due immediately. Just one talent coin was worth about 6,000 days, or nearly 17 years, of wages. So 10,000 talents would be 170,000 years’ worth of wages that he owed the king. And if that’s not enough to drive home the immensity of this servant’s debt, 10,000 is the highest number that can be expressed in Greek. It’s the Greek equivalent of saying “infinity.” The servant, then, owes the king an infinite amount of debt. An unpayable debt. He will never be able to work hard enough or long enough to pay it off. In the same way, our good works are never enough to pay the penalty or the price for our sins.


This is the stage Jesus sets and the image he paints to show his disciples how scandalous forgiveness is.



THE COST OF FORGIVENESS

As we look at the next part of the text, I want to clarify a few things to ensure we understand and apply its implications correctly.


Often, we find in Scripture, and even in our society, a seeming conflict between forgiveness and justice. How can God forgive and still be a God of justice? How are we to forgive and, at the same time, be a people of justice? The truth of the matter is that these two great pillars stand side by side, and we must rightly understand and apply both if we are to be faithful Christians who live in community with one another. Let’s begin by defining the term justice. What do we even mean when we say “justice”?


“When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made.” (Matthew 18:24–25)


What is justice? The Bible uses this word in several different ways. In this text, justice is implied and can be defined as “giving someone what is owed to them.” This kind of justice can take a negative form or a positive form. For example, if someone commits a crime like murder, giving them what is owed would mean a prison sentence or even the death penalty. Likewise, in this text, we see the servant is ordered to be sold, along with his entire family and possessions to pay, the debt he owes. That’s justice in a negative form. For a positive form of justice, imagine that someone is wronged, oppressed or defrauded, and then they’re given some type of monetary reward for their loss. We see this in our civil courts today and on TV shows like Judge Judy or The People’s Court: A person brings a case of loss against another person and is awarded compensation for the loss. That’s positive justice. The king receiving payment from the servant for his loss is positive justice.

In the Bible, justice can also mean “to be fair” or “to have equal treatment.” We are called to be just, or fair, in our dealings with one another. Leviticus 19:15 states:


“You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor.”


Jonathan Leeman, the editorial director for 9Marks, has a definition I believe is helpful for our understanding. After looking at the over 130 mentions of justice in the Bible, he says that justice can be summarized as “judgment in accordance with what is right.” To do justice is to do what is right, according to the ethical and moral character and word of God.

So, what is forgiveness? Forgiveness is the freeing of someone from the obligation of a debt or an offense. To forgive also means to pardon. Let’s look at verses 26–27 of Matthew 18:


“So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.”


Do you see how there can be a conflict between doing justice (giving someone what is owed to them) and showing forgiveness (not giving them what is owed to them)?


What we need to understand is that forgiveness is not cheap. Forgiveness is costly. I love the late Tim Keller’s illustration to describe how forgiveness costs us. Keller was a pastor, theologian, and author in New York City, and he explained forgiveness like this:


“When speaking of forgiveness, Jesus uses the image of debts to describe the nature of sins. When someone seriously wrongs you, there is an absolutely unavoidable sense that the wrongdoer owes you. The wrong has incurred an obligation, a liability, a debt. Anyone who has been wronged feels a compulsion to make the other person pay down that debt. We do that by hurting them, yelling at them, making them feel bad in some way, or just waiting and watching and hoping that something bad happens to them. Only after we see them suffer in some commensurate way do we sense that the debt has been paid and the sense of obligation is gone. This sense of debt/liability and obligation is impossible to escape. Anyone who denies it exists has simply not been wronged or sinned against in any serious way.”


He went on to say,


“What then is forgiveness? Forgiveness means giving up the right to seek repayment from the one who harmed you. But it must be recognized that forgiveness is a form of voluntary suffering.


Think about how monetary debts work. If a friend breaks my lamp, and if the lamp costs fifty dollars to replace, then the act of lamp-breaking incurs a debt of fifty dollars. If I let him pay for and replace the lamp, I get my lamp back and he’s out fifty dollars. But if I forgive him for what he did, the debt does not somehow vanish into thin air. When I forgive him, I absorb the cost and payment for the lamp: either I will pay the fifty dollars to replace it or I will lose the lighting in that room. To forgive is to cancel a debt by paying it or absorbing it yourself. Someone always pays every debt.”


Look at the king in the biblical text. By forgiving the servant of the debt, he is taking the loss of the 10,000 talents upon himself. This means he won’t get paid what he is owed. The king deliberately chooses to suffer in place of the servant. He substitutes himself in the servant’s place so that the servant can go free! The king satisfies the need for justice by taking on the debt himself.


True biblical forgiveness doesn’t negate justice. It fulfills it. This is what Jesus did for us on the cross when he took our punishment. He paid the debt himself. He satisfied justice so that we could receive grace and be free from eternal damnation. Justice is never laid aside; it is always fulfilled. The price is always paid. This is the good news of Jesus Christ!


But in this good news, I think about how we apply forgiveness. Forgiveness and justice can occur on multiple levels. First, God has satisfied justice at the eternal level: Jesus died on the cross and paid the penalty for our sins, and we are forgiven. Then, there is the personal level; we’re about to see how God’s forgiveness should lead us to forgive one another. But there is another level of justice not represented in our passage: the governmental level. God has appointed governments a role to carry out justice here on Earth. Romans 13 tells us that the government is a servant of God to bring wrath and to bear the sword against what is bad.


Because we know we are to be a people of forgiveness, we sometimes tend to move straight to forgiveness and restoration when a Christian has committed a sin and has expressed repentance. Sometimes, however, when a crime has been committed—when someone has hurt a child, or a husband has abused his wife, for example—while they might be forgiven eternally and personally, justice through the sword of government still needs to be carried out. This error has led to many scandals in churches because they ignored the earthly justice God has appointed to governments.


In this parable, Jesus focuses on the eternal and personal levels of justice and forgiveness. He is teaching us the heart of God and the great debt of sin we’ve been forgiven, and how that forgiveness is to lead us to show that same love and forgiveness to those who have sinned against us.


TRUE REPENTANCE AND OUR RESPONSE TO BEING FORGIVEN


“But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” (Matthew 18:28–35)


This servant, who was just facing imprisonment and the loss of his family, has now been put into the king’s place: Someone owes the servant a debt, and he is pleading for mercy. But as the one who is owed, his heart is as hard as a rock. This servant owed him 100 days of wages, an amount that is insignificant to the debt he had just been forgiven. Instead of showing grace, he grabs his fellow servant and demands that he pay. Though the servant pleads for the same mercy, he says no.

The amount of self-righteousness and pride, and this belief that we deserve justice more than the King himself, is wickedness. Through the character of the king, Jesus calls him a “wicked servant.” Look at the difference between the heart of the king in verse 27 and the heart of the servant.


“And out of pity [or compassion] for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.”


The king had compassion in his heart for the servant. Micah 7:18-20 tells us about the true King:


Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in steadfast love. He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities underfoot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea. You will show faithfulness to Jacob and steadfast love to Abraham, as you have sworn to our fathers from the days of old.


God has compassion for us. He delights in steadfast love for us. The king was moved by the servant’s plea for mercy just as God is moved by ours, but there was no compassion in the servant’s heart for his fellow servant’s plea. In Matthew 18:35, Jesus tells us that we must forgive from the heart. This is a heart issue. God’s grace, love, and forgiveness should change our hearts. As a result, it should change how we treat and interact with one another. The servant showed that he hadn’t truly repented in that he failed to love his fellow servant. I pray that we are a people who are marked by love and forgiveness for one another.


This is what we need to understand: We are not greater than our Lord. If Jesus, the King and Creator of all things, can humble himself and take on the form of a servant and suffer, and give himself up for us, how can we not do the same for one another?


I do want to be sensitive, though. Forgiveness is not easy. Forgiveness can be very hard at times, especially for people who have experienced great trauma and pain. We need to be loving and caring toward them. We also need to understand that forgiveness does not mean the removal of pain. On the cross, as Jesus was asking his Father to forgive those who were murdering him, he felt every bit of anguish and pain. So don’t feel bad because you’re hurting. That is normal. What we are called to do in those times is to focus on the cross of Jesus and not on our pain. We are to look to Jesus and the great debt we’ve been forgiven so we can forgive those who have sinned against us.


Isn’t that how Jesus told us to pray? “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” We are to be forgiving people because we have been forgiven. C.S. Lewis put it this way: “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable in others because Christ has forgiven the inexcusable in us.”


So, how should the Church apply this wisdom to past racial injustices? To my black brothers and sisters: Are we holding back forgiveness from our white brothers and sisters because we feel we deserve retribution or payment? In this time of great unrest in both the Church and society, I believe that it is black Christians who truly hold the power to heal by showing the love of Christ through the counter-cultural and other-worldly act of voluntarily suffering for others who have sinned against us. In other words, by extending forgiveness. Our white brothers and sisters are literally pleading with us and saying, “What must I do?” How will we respond? Will we say, “Go, your debt is forgiven”? Or will we grab them and say, “Pay us what you owe us”? Remember, we did not earn grace. We were not told to “Do the work.” Grace was freely given to us, so we must freely give it to others.


“Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” Ephesians 4:31–32


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