27 January 2011

Question of the Week:
Aren't Rules of Forgiveness Unfair?

by Anne Lang Bundy

"We are most like men when we judge.
We are most like God when we forgive."
~ Anonymous

If God required a sacrifice to forgive, why should I be asked to forgive without receiving one?
~ Anonymous

In the parable of the unforgiving servant, how could the master put the servant in prison for a debt that had been forgiven?
~ J.F.

Since the master in the parable represents God, both questions imply that God unfairly applies the rules of forgiveness. There are innumerable responses that might offered for the first question. The answer offered here today will address the aspect of ownership, nicely illustrated by the parable in the second question.

Declaring bankruptcy was not an option in ancient times. Debts were paid by selling your possessions, by selling your family members or yourself as slaves, or by going to prison unless someone of means paid the debt on your behalf. Jesus tells a parable of a servant who owes millions of dollars. His master says the man, his family, and his possessions will be sold in payment. The man begs for mercy and patience to make good on his debt—as if he can. The master shows great mercy by simply forgiving the debt.

Take note that the servant is already a slave (Greek doulos). All he has belongs to the master anyway. Being sold would have separated him from his family and given him a different master, but forgiveness has not given him ownership of himself. The forgiven slave still serves at his master's pleasure, and he has incurred a new debt—the debt of gratitude.

The master owns the slave, the debt, all assets the slave considers his own, and all the slave's service. The master also owns a fellow slave whom the first slave assaults and imprisons for a minor debt. And since the master owns both slaves, he actually owns that minor debt, too. In forgiving the first debt and wiping the slate clean, the master has effectively wiped out the associated debt of the second slave.

If debtor's prison serves as punishment and deterrent for willfully acquiring debt without ability or intent to repay, then the first slave deserved prison in the first place. His refusal to extend a small measure of mercy not only proves him evil and unworthy of the mercy he received, but his ingratitude trivializes the master's goodness. The slave's actions say to the master: "What you gave me is insignificant compared to what this other slave should give me."

Jesus Christ is the payment for our sins, and not only for our sins, but also for the sins of the whole world.
~ 1 John 2:2 (GW)

When Jesus was crucified, His sacrifice paid the death penalty every one of us owes God for our sins. Once I accept application of that payment to my account, it also wipes out whatever sin debt I think someone else owes me, and which is actually owed to our mutual Master.

Though we may ask for our offenders to be held accountable, we cannot ask for sacrifice. The sacrifice for all sin has already been made.

[POST SCRIPT: Please see the comments below for more discussion of Jesus' atonement and God's authority to require it.]

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For more on the reasons to forgive and the associated blessings, see Why Forgive?

What questions do you have about Christianity or the Bible? You're invited to leave them in the comments below (anonymous questions welcome), or email buildingHisbody [plus] @ gmail.com.

© 2011 Anne Lang Bundy, all rights reserved.
image source: jshinn.wordpress.com


  1. Sometimes I can't wrap my head around this--that God would do this for us. I accept it and live it, but to fully fathom it...it's hard and maybe impossible as a human.
    ~ Wendy

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  3. I think it is also important to understand first, why sacrifices were made.

    God is something we aren't, and that is that He is the ultimate Judge. God alone is perfect and holy. All sin is primarily against God (Psalm 51:4), and the wrath of God is known as divine punishment. Thus atonement is required to satisfy those requirements.

    Man is fallen, and never has had those requirements, or the authority as a judge to require sacrifices. Since we do not have authority to render divine judgment, it makes no sense to use any sacrifice (including Christ) as acceptable sacrifice for atonement for your sins against me, or your neighbor. We can however, forgive our neighbor as equals.

    Christ's sacrifice was about mediation between God and men, not between men. To be honest, I think your post is misleading and leaves your readers at that possible conclusion.

    God bless, Richie

  4. Wendy ~

    Although we won't fully appreciate or understand what God has done as long as we live on this side of Heaven, we can be confident that He asks nothing of us that He does not empower.

  5. Richie ~

    I apologize if a succinct answer is misleading. I am continually frustrated by the limitation to adequately address in about 500 words topics to which entire volumes are devoted. The Atonement of Christ such a huge concept that I addressed forgiveness here in a very limited scope concerning ownership of sin. I'll happily elaborate in the comments.

    I completely agree that we have neither the authority to render judgment of moral wrong nor require sacrifice as a satisfaction for it—outside the scope of authority which may be entrusted to us as husbands and parents, pastors or other church leaders, and government officials. It is exactly my point that we cannot demand from our fellow man satisfaction for the sin owned by God alone.

    Christ's sacrifice was, as you say, about the mediation and reconciliation between God and man. Our reconciliation to God is established on Christ's sacrifice, and becomes the foundation for forgiveness between men. When the accounts are settled by wiping the slate clean, I am no longer debtor nor debtee. If the one I would call debtor has been released from debt by God—based on the same sacrifice—who am I to pretend the debt still stands? If the one I would call debtor has not been released, based on Christ's sacrifice, then I must forgive based on the knowledge that our common Owner is the true debt holder, and I cannot hope to obtain true satisfaction for offense apart from being reconciled to my fellow man through Christ.

    I see that we definitely attempt to own the offenses committed against us, we demand compensation for them, and we make sacrifice of some sort a prerequisite to forgiveness. If we can change our perspective and acknowledge where ownership lies, perhaps we will more easily trust God to require accountability.

    My continual prayer is that members of Christ's body of believers will gain an increasing awareness of the unity we gain through our spiritual bloodline, and that we will find new ways to express that unity to one another and to the world, with forgiveness and love at the top of the list.

  6. Wonderful elaboration! :)

  7. Thanks, Richie. : ) backatcha.

  8. A very important topic and I believe very timely for the Body of Christ. The harboring of offenses and unforgiveness is killing people in a thousand different ways. Thanks for a wonderful answer and even more elaboration in the comments. Blessings to you, Anne.

  9. this post reminded me of F.C. Barne's song "Rough Side of the Mountain." think i will just second Wendy's thoughts about it. the parable is thought provoking though. so many lessons yet to learn/experience in forgiveness and love. it's simple to say we love because He first loved us and one could also inject the word forgiveness into the sentence as well. but saying it and doing it are two different matters entirely. WHO owns whom comes to mind...:)

  10. Jason ~

    "Killing people in a thousand different ways" is a horrible reality. May God move His people to lead the way of love in holding no record of wrongs.

  11. Bud ~

    I selected the ownership aspect of forgiveness because it has been so helpful to me in not clinging to offenses. I'm not all the way there yet. But the freedom I've experienced by forgiving others is so profound that I do not think it can be taken too seriously.