Where Is the Cross?
Then the master of that servant was moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt.
(Matthew 18:27, NKJ)
Everywhere true forgiveness is found, the cross of Christ is behind it.
Hundreds of times the Old Testament speaks of God forgiving His people. After God instituted the sacrificial system such forgiveness was uniquely linked to the sin and guilt offerings, and thus the second chapter of Leviticus repeats the refrain …and it shall be forgiven him (vv 20, 26, 31, 35). Frequently God’s forgiveness is voiced in the Psalms. In Psalm 32, a foundational liturgical Psalm, the Psalmist cries out, I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the iniquity of my sin (v 5).
In Sunday’s Gospel the King—obviously God—forgives the apparently penitent servant his massive debt. The debt is so huge that such amounts of money were associated with tributes owed by one nation to another. The illustration is clear. God forgives our massive sin-debt.
Why would God forgive the sins of His people in Old Testament times, and why would God speak of His bountiful forgiveness in Sunday’s parable? Was it because of contrition over sin? Certainly this was essential, but sorrow over sin is not what makes God forgiving. Was it because of God’s compassionate mercy? Certainly this is also an essential part of the movement that climaxes in God’s forgiveness.
If we imagine each sin to be a check mark on a chalkboard, does the combination of our repentance and God’s mercy move Him to pick up the eraser and simply wipe the board clean? No! Let’s consider a parallel parable in the present. Suppose I loaned you $25,000 to buy a new car. Then suppose both because of your “repentance” over failure to repay me, and because of my mercy I forgave that debt; is that the end of the matter? Not at all! My willingness to forgive the debt indicates that I will pay it off. In my mercy I will take your debt and pay it. Such forgiveness ultimately means I pay what you owe.
In an infinitely greater way, God mercifully took the entire sin-debt of humanity, and he paid it off! This is where the cross of Christ comes in. God does not forgive us because we are penitent (though this is necessary), nor does God forgive us simply because His is merciful (though He is). Our merciful God forgives us because in His mercy He sent His Son to pay our sin-debt by dying on the cross. In both the Old and New Testaments such a payment of sin-debt is spoken of as making atonement. In the Old Testament it appeared as though the sacrificial creatures created this atonement. They did not. These unwilling sacrifices both pictured and conveyed atonement. What did they picture? Christ on the cross. Saint John wrote of this atoning payment in his first epistle: He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world (NIV 2:22). There you have it. Christ’s sacrifice paid the sin-debt for the entire world, and this means for all humanity from Adam to the end of time. This is why at any point in history God can speak of His merciful forgiveness.
Now, as conveyed in Sunday’s parable, God’s forgiveness of us establishes our forgiveness of one another. If God forgives our billions of dollars-worth of personal debt, how can we presume not to forgive the twenty dollars of debt owed to us! If Christ paid our entire sin-debt, how can we then even consider not forgiving those who sin against us? Empowered and motivated by Christ’s atoning sacrifice, we forgive one another. Everywhere true forgiveness is found, the cross of Christ is behind it.