Debt. For all the ads you hear and see on TV and radio about getting out of debt and all the promises from presidential candidates to help Americans get out of debt – debt is still a big problem for individuals and our nation alike. Struggling with debt is nothing new. King Solomon revealed the truth about debt: the rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is servant to the lender. (Proverbs 22:7) And this was his advice to anyone who found themselves weighed down by debt: go and humble yourself; press your plea with your neighbor! Allow no sleep to your eyes, no slumber to your eyelids. Free yourself, like a gazelle from the hand of the hunter, like a bird from the snare of the fowler. (Proverbs 6:3-5) For Solomon, debt was something to be avoided at all costs. Is that still the case today? In 2015 the average American household carried $15,000 in credit card debt, $168,000 in mortgage debt, $27,000 in auto loans, and $48,000 in student loans. The numbers speak for themselves. For the average American, it appears that getting what they want outweighs their ability to pay for it. And the result is debt. Debt that leads to sleepless nights, anxiety and family problems; debt that not too long ago led to a nationwide recession and housing crisis. As bad as financial debt is, there’s a far greater debt problem in our world. Exponentially greater than any financial debt is the debt of sin we each owe to God. This very real, very dangerous debt problem is why Jesus teaches us to pray: forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. Jesus takes care of our debt problem by teaching us to be forgiven and forgiving.
By calling sin “debt” Jesus brings home a harsh reality: sin is more than poor judgment or an error or mistake that can be easily erased. Sin creates a debt that must be paid, and as Paul says: the wages of sin is death. (Romans 6:23) Unfortunately, many people treat sin like they treat their finances: they want to live however they want and to hell with the consequences. And like a dishonest loan shark, Satan is happy to help people along that path. He has convinced some that a sinful lifestyle is something you are born with, and therefore is no more serious than having green eyes or brown hair. He has convinced others that God judges sin like credit bureaus judge debt – some sins are really bad, but others are not. He has led people to believe that if they try to do a little good each day they can slowly pay off their debt of sin – the idea of karma. He has even convinced many that if they stop listening to God’s Word, ignore the warnings of parents and pastors, and find some way to tune out the voice of conscience that sin will somehow go away, kind of like silencing the phone to avoid creditors. But that’s not how reality works. The longer you ignore your financial debt, the worse it gets. It’s no different with the debt of sin. God does not ignore or lose track of debts. In his courtroom, every sin must be paid for.
God taught this truth to his Old Testament people in an unforgettable way. Whenever any Israelite man, woman or child sinned – intentionally or unintentionally – God commanded them to bring an animal to the tabernacle where a priest would slaughter that animal as payment for their sin. (Leviticus 4-5) And to make it clear that God would not overlook even one sin, each year on the Day of Atonement, the high priest was to slaughter a bull and a goat for the sins of all the people – even the ones they were unaware of. (Leviticus 16) Day after day, week after week, year after year, the Lord taught his people the undeniable truth about the debt of sin: without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness. (Hebrews 9:22)
Just like dealing with financial debt, owning up to the reality and consequences of our debt of sin is the first step in removing it. This need is why every time we come here to worship God the first thing we do is publicly confess our sins to him. This is why John the Baptist stood in the desert of Judea preaching repentance (Mark 1:4) and why the first message Jesus proclaimed when he began his public ministry was repent! (Mark 1:15) This is why Martin Luther wrote in his first of 95 Theses: When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ``Repent'' (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance. And, it’s not a coincidence that in the words Jesus intended his disciples to use as a model for daily prayer he teaches forgive us our debts.
But this is where God is unlike any other creditor. While he demands payment for each and every sin, out of his infinite grace and mercy he decided to make that payment himself. I failed to mention earlier that on the Day of Atonement not one but two goats were chosen. One was slaughtered, but the priest took the other one, put his hands on its head, symbolically laid the sin of the entire nation on it and sent it out into the desert. (Leviticus 16:20-22) This goat represented God’s solution to the debt of sin. This goat represented Jesus, the Lamb of God, who was slaughtered on the altar of the cross as the payment price for the sins of the world. In God’s eyes, Jesus carried the debt of every sinner in the world to the cross and paid the price for it with his holy blood. This payment was sufficient to pay for every sin you have ever committed, to the extent that Jesus shouted from the cross: tetelestai – it is finished. (John 19:30) This is the word a Greek banker would write on a bill when it had been paid in full. Every sin from the past, all the debt that you could never hope to pay down and every ounce of the punishment you deserved for it has been removed, paid for by Jesus and forgiven by God.
The Gospel of sins forgiven might not be news to most of us, but it’s a lesson we are never done learning. Why? Because even though God has forgotten our sins, we haven’t. Because even though God no longer accuses and condemns us, Satan still does. Because even though the Judge has pronounced us innocent, we still feel guilty. The unfortunate reality is that as unnatural as it is for us to own up to our debt before God, it’s even more unnatural for us to believe that Jesus has paid the price for all of it. And the only cure for that is pure, unfiltered Gospel. And so, whenever you pray these words, recall the countless assurances God has given in his Word that for Jesus’ sake he has removed every cent of your debt of sin. Jeremiah 31:34: I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more. Psalm 103:12: As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. Micah 7:19: You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea. Debt is inevitable, guilt is natural; forgiveness is not – we need to learn it. That’s why we need to pray and treasure these words forgive us our sins; Lord, teach us to be forgiven.
Only when we have learned that lesson can we continue: as we also have forgiven our debtors. This too, is completely unnatural for us. As good as creditors are at keeping track of debt, we are probably even better at keeping track of the debts others owe us. Isn’t it funny: I can ignore the fact that I owe hundreds of thousands of dollars to a bank, but there is no way I’m forgetting that $100 I loaned to a friend. We can forget that God has patiently forgiven us for committing the same stupid sins day after day for decades, but we can hold grudges against co-workers, ex-boyfriends, classmates, siblings and spouses for years. Actually, it’s not funny at all. It’s deadly serious. So serious that Jesus gives an expanded commentary on this petition: if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. (Matthew 6:14-15) God’s forgiveness is free, we cannot earn it or deserve it. But if we refuse to forgive others, we will lose it.
Forgiven people are forgiving people, Jesus says. But let’s be honest: forgiving is not easy. As long as we live in this sinful world, making the conscious, willful decision to not hold a grudge, to not retaliate, to not return evil for evil but instead return good for evil, will never come naturally or quickly. And the bigger the debt, the harder it is for us to forgive.
But there are a couple of things to keep in mind when it comes to forgiving others. First, don’t confuse the emotions of forgiveness with the fact of forgiveness. Especially when it comes to sins like betrayal and unfaithfulness and physical abuse, or pain inflicted by those closest to you – you may never be totally free from the pain of that sin, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t forgive the one who did it to you. God is able to forgive and forget perfectly, we cannot. And so, forgiveness for us means that no matter how we feel, we are making a conscious decision NOT to seek revenge, NOT to hold a grudge, NOT to wish evil on that person, and to tell them, repeatedly if necessary: I forgive you. What if they continue to sin against me? Well, there are limits to forgiveness. Divine limits. We are to forgive others as often as God forgives us.
Second, there is a real difference between not be able to forgive and being unwilling to do so. If a person says: “I know what God requires of me and I will not do it,” this person needs to listen very carefully to the concluding words of Jesus’ parable about the unmerciful servant: Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you? In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from the heart. (Matthew 18:33-35) Jesus is clear: unforgiving people are not welcome – either to receive forgiveness through his body and blood here and now (Matthew 5:24) or to be received into heaven when they die.
On the other hand, when the pain is deep and the effects are long lasting, sometimes all a Christian can utter is: “I know, Lord, what you require of me. I know that you expect me to forgive just as you have forgiven me. I want to, but I can’t, help me.” If that is your struggle, there’s only one thing to do, come back to the well of God’s forgiveness day after day after day. Seek out his word of absolution publicly and privately. Taste the body and blood of Christ given and poured out for the forgiveness of your sins and the sins of the person indebted to you. And then leave, forgiven of all your debts, ready to forgive the debts of others.
Solomon’s words concerning debt are still relevant 3500 years later: debt is bad. Financial debt often leads to serious consequences. The consequences of our debt of sin is far worse: death and eternal imprisonment in hell. But Jesus came to bring forgiveness. He has paid your debt once and for all on the cross. But until he takes us home to heaven, we can never stop praying: Lord, teach us to be forgiven. Assure us that no matter the amount of debt we have accumulated, Jesus’ blood has washed every penny of it from God’s record books. And Lord, teach us to be forgiving. Especially when it hurts, especially when it’s hard – give us the strength to be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave [us]. (Ephesians 4:32) Amen.