Debt Cancellation (2)

In this post we will explore two other key texts that explain forgiveness through the lens of debt removal. Again, take note of the financial language throughout these two passages.

Luke 7:41-50: Debt, Forgiveness, and Love
“A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven-for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
The parable and the factual story drive home the same point. When we grasp the grace of God in removing our debt we are compelled to gratitude and love. Lavish grace is reciprocated by lavish love. The journey of obedience into the first and greatest commandment is directed, motivated, and deepened by grasping the wonder of God’s forgiveness. 
Colossians 2:13-14: The Cross and Debt 
“And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.”
In this passage the record of debt likely refers to the condemnation of the law that hangs over our heads due to our transgressions. The text is explicit that the record of debt against us is canceled through the cross. As Christ is nailed to the cross our condemnation and debt is exhausted. 
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Debt Cancellation (1)

As was noted in the last post, the cancellation of debt is an important image in the New Testament for explaining and understanding the concept of forgiveness. In this post we will look at two texts that portray forgiveness through this very helpful and accessible image. These texts will not be new to you, but try to look at them with fresh eyes. As you read take note of the debt/payment language.

Matthew 18:21-35: A Parable of a God who Obliterates Debt and Calls us to the Same
Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven. 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. 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. 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. 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.”

This is one of the key New Testament passages that addresses the issue of forgiveness. Matthew anchors his discussion in financial imagery. There are three things I would like to draw out from this text.

First, in God’s economy debt/sin is an inescapable reality. Unlike debt here and now, theological debt is not dissolved when we die. The parable is clear that where there is debt there will be payment. This parable opens our eyes to the exorbitant  bill our sin has earned us. It is a payment beyond us.

The second thing this parable draws our attention to is the mercy of the Sovereign. The King of all the earth stands ready to release us from an outrageous debt. This is shocking interaction for a monarch. He gains nothing from releasing this man from his debt—he simply loses. This is mercy.

The third and final observation is that the releasing work of this King is to shape our interaction with those who owe us. This parable brilliantly shows us how ridiculous we are in our unwillingness to release our debtors. Servants of this King are required to imitate his benevolence. Failure to do so excludes one from belonging to this Lord.

Luke 11:2-4: The Lord’s Prayer
And he said to them, “When you pray, say: “Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread, and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation.”

Luke’s version of the Lord’s prayer ties together the themes of debt, sin, and forgiveness. This daily petition places forgiveness as a central concern in the life of every believer. We stand before God as debtors. The petition for release should come across our lips as often as our request for daily bread. The ground or basis of this request for forgiveness is very interesting and important. He grounds the request in the fact that our debtors have been released from their outstanding balance. In other words, “God, interact with me, a sinner, the way I have interacted with those who have sinned against me.” This interplay of being forgiven and extending forgiveness is tightly connected throughout the New Testament.

I am Onesimus

Do you recall the story of Onesimus? He was the runaway slave of a man named Philemon. Through a strange series of events this runaway ended up in Rome in Paul’s company.  Exactly how this occurred (whether it was intentional or unintentional) is never spelled out. We know that Paul had a relationship with Philemon prior to this event. It also appears that Onesimus came to faith through Paul’s witness while he was in Rome.  In Paul’s letter to Philemon he informs him of Onesimus’ whereabouts and conversion. He also appeals to Philemon to engage the circumstance with Christ-like behavior.

It is easy to miss the fact that Paul is putting himself out there for Onesimus.  When slaves ran away in the ancient world “the lost time of an escaped slave was lost money and was legally viewed as stolen property” (Craig Keener, The Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, p.643).  Recapture for a runaway slave “normally meant severe punishment”  and possibly even death (Keener, p. 644).

In this context, Paul makes this incredible statement. “If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it…” (Philemon 18-19). Paul assumes the debt of Onesimus. He is willing to absorb any punishment that Onesimus has earned through his actions. Paul puts his signature in the letter, which would legally bind him to paying the debt if Philemon so demanded (Keener, p. 646).

Paul is exemplifying the heart of forgiveness in this text. He incurs the debt of another so that they may go free. He mimics the Son of God who transfers our debt into his account, pays it off at his own expense, and in return for our debt gives us grace and freedom. Everyone one of us is in the situation of Onesimus before God—debtors. Christ alone is the only hope for the condemning debt we are buried under.

Throughout the New Testament debt cancellation is one of the primary ways forgiveness is explained. In the next two posts we will look at the key texts that flesh out this aspect of forgiveness.