The Sin Debt
Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times? Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven. Therefore is the kingdom of heaven likened unto a certain king, which would take account of his servants. And when he had begun to reckon, one was brought unto him, which owed him ten thousand talents. But forasmuch as he had not to pay, his lord commanded him to be sold, and his wife, and children, and all that he had, and payment to be made. The servant therefore fell down, and worshipped him, saying, Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. Then the lord of that servant was moved with compassion, and loosed him, and forgave him the debt. But the same servant went out, and found one of his fellowservants, which owed him an hundred pence: and he laid hands on him, and took him by the throat, saying, Pay me that thou owest. And his fellowservant fell down at his feet, and besought him, saying, Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. And he would not: but went and cast him into prison, till he should pay the debt. So when his fellowservants saw what was done, they were very sorry, and came and told unto their lord all that was done. Then his lord, after that he had called him, said unto him, O thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt, because thou desiredst me: Shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellowservant, even as I had pity on thee? And his lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due unto him. So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses. (Matthew 18:21-35)
Sin is set forth in the word of God under a variety of pictures and metaphors. Sometimes it is described as a loathsome disease, such as leprosy. Sometimes it is compared to bondage, slavery, or imprisonment. Frequently sin is represented by death and compared to an obnoxious, rotting corpse. In this passage sin is compared to a debt that we owe.
How thankful we ought to be that Peter asked this question! — “Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times?” It was in response to Peter’s question about forgiveness the Lord Jesus gave us this rich and blessed parable, comparing the kingdom of heaven to a king who graciously forgives the enormous debt of his servant. It was our Savior’s purpose in this parable to teach Peter and each of us both the boundless, incomprehensible fulness of God’s free grace to us in him and how we are to forgive one another. He shows us that both the pattern and the motive for forgiveness among believers is the infinite, incalculable forgiveness of our sins by our God. In Chapter 6 he taught us to pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (v. 12). Now he teaches us that our sins are debts cancelled and forgiven by God, and that as we have been forgiven, even so we ought to forgive one another.
Our Lord’s purpose in giving this great parable is obvious. Here our all-merciful Savior shows us that we are to forgive one another of all evil done against us, just as our God has forgiven us for Christ’s sake (Eph. 4:32-5:1). What a vast, immeasurable debt sin is! Our Lord compares it to “ten thousand talents,” using a definite number to represent a debt that is indefinite and incalculable. He is telling us that the offences of men against us are nothing, compared to our offences against our God. As God’s forgiveness is free and without limit, so we ought to forgive one another freely and without limit. As Benjamin Keach wrote…
“O what have sinners done, and in what a poor, miserable, and wretched state are all men naturally? Owing so much, and not having one farthing to pay. What is any debt owing to us, compared to this?”
The example our Savior gives, by which he motivates such brotherly kindness, as in all things spiritual, is himself, and the grace of God that is ours in him. The God of all grace freely forgives all who seek his mercy in Christ. If the love, grace, and mercy of God to us is so infinite and boundless, how utterly unthinkable it is for forgiven sinners not to forgive one another! “It was,” as Don Doezema states, “to underscore that all-important principle of the kingdom of heaven that Jesus told the parable of the unmerciful servant.”
The “certain king” in this parable represents the Lord God. We are all debtors to him. There are certain, moral obligations due to God from all his creatures. We are all debtors to the Almighty. Creatures owe a debt of obedience to their Creator. All that God required of Adam in the Garden was obedience. Certainly, the Creator deserves that much!
God is our Creator, our Preserver, our Provider, our Benefactor. “It is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves; we are his people and the sheep of his pasture.” He is “the living God, who giveth us richly all things to enjoy.” Every breath of our nostrils is the gift of God. We live upon his bounty. All of us owe our lives to him. As our Creator and Benefactor, God demands two things from us. His law is not extreme. His demands are not unreasonable. They are perfectly righteous demands (Matt. 22:37-39). (1.) “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind” (Ex. 20:3-11). (2.) “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (Ex. 20:12-17). In a word, we all owe the Lord God a life of perfect righteousness, a life of perfect obedience. He requires it. Failure to render such a life unto him is the incurrence of a very great debt.
Not only have we failed to obey him, we have further indebted ourselves by sin, by the willful transgression of his law. What a debt sin is! It is compared in verse 24 to “ten thousand talents.” That is millions of dollars in modern currency! And the debt increases every day. It is a debt of infinite proportion, beyond calculation, a debt that will go on swelling as long as we live, unless it can be removed from us by some power greater than our own. Sin is a debt with tremendous consequences. It is written, “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). “The soul that sinneth, it shall die” (Ezek. 18:20). The consequence of sin is death: legal death (Rom. 5:12), spiritual death (Eph. 2:1-4), physical death (Heb. 9:27), and the second, everlasting death in hell (Rev. 20:6, 13-15).
Truly, saved sinners, those who have been pardoned and forgiven of all their sins by the grace of God through the blood of Christ are debtors who owe a mighty, deep debt of gratitude and love to God. There is nothing in this passage about this debt; but I cannot fail to remind you, and my own heart, of it. Let us never forget it. Let us ever be keenly aware of it (1 Cor. 6:19-20; 2 Cor. 8:9; Rom. 12:1-2).
“When I stand before the throne,
Dressed in beauty not my own
When I see thee as thou art,
Love Thee with unsinning heart,
Then, Lord, shall I fully know,
Not till then, how much I owe.”
Sin is that which makes us debtors to God. These days debt is not so shameful and embarrassing as it once was. Most people today seem to think, “The more I owe, the more I own,” ignoring the word of wisdom, which declares, “the borrower is servant to the lender” (Pro. 22:7). Still, debtors and sinners have much in common with one another.
Debtors are very likely to get more deeply into debt. One of the terrible facts about sin is that it breeds so quickly and profusely. You can never say to sin, “Hitherto shalt thou come, and no further.” Sin, like a great debt, causes uneasiness in people when they are aware of it. If a man has a spark of honesty about him, he cannot rest when he knows he has debts he cannot pay. Even so, a sinner awakened by the grace of God to see his debt to God begins to be greatly disturbed and troubled by sin. He cannot find rest for his soul because he cannot pay his debt. Debtors and sinners alike shun their creditors. When a man is in debt and has nothing to pay, he tries to hide from his creditors. So men and women in debt to God try to hide from him, just as Adam and Eve, after the fall, made fig leaf aprons to cover themselves and tried to hide from God in the Garden. And sinners, like debtors in earlier times, are in very great danger. The law of the land these days says, “You do not have to pay anyone you owe, unless you want to. Instead of paying your bills, if you like, you can file bankruptcy.” It was not always that way; and it shall never be that way with regard to our sin debt. God demands that the debt be paid (Matt. 5:25-26).
We are all debtors to God; but some have greater debts than others. This thought must not be pressed beyond what is revealed. Yet, it is clearly represented in this parable. Here is one man who owed “ten thousand talents” (millions of dollars), and another owed “an hundred pence” (about 15 dollars). The indication is obvious. We have all sinned; but we have not all sinned alike, or to the same degree. Therefore, we are not all debtors to the same extent. Some sins are greater than others; and the consequences, both in this world and in the world too come, are greater (John 19:11; Matt. 11:20-24). Every sin is an infinite, immeasurable evil, deserving of eternal ruin. Any sin will destroy the soul forever. Yet, there are some sins that have a special venom in them, a special vileness of offence to God. The Scriptures clearly teach that there are degrees of punishment in hell. Punishment is always in exact proportion to the crime committed. But the Word of God does not teach degrees of reward in heaven. Heavenly glory is the inheritance of grace. Sinners go to hell by their own merit and are rewarded according to his wages. But do not imagine that God measures sin by man’s yardstick.
It may surprise you to read the Book of God and discover who God says are in the greater condemnation. Those who are placed in positions of greater trust and influence, but neglect or abuse it shall suffer greater condemnation (James 3:1). Those who have been given greater light, but refuse to walk in that light shall suffer greater wrath (John 15:22, 24). Those who hear, but refuse to believe the gospel of Christ shall have the greater punishment (1 John 5:10). Unbelief, the willful rejection of God’s mercy and grace in Christ, is the most glaringly hideous evil in the world. It is written, “He that believeth shall not be damned.” “He that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (John 3:18).
Unbelief is man’s highest crime against God. Unbelief says that God is a liar! Unbelief is man’s stubborn denial of his own sin and his obstinate claim of personal righteousness. Unbelief is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. Unbelief is despising the grace of God. Unbelief says that Christ accomplished nothing. By unbelief, sinful men and women, ever clinging to their fig-leaf righteousness, attempt to justify themselves, hide from God, and refuse to submit to (trust) Christ, the sinners’ Substitute, for righteousness (Rom. 9:31-10:13). C. H. Spurgeon wrote of unbelief, “That is the sin which, above all others, drops the black wax upon (your) death warrant, and sets the seal of divine wrath there.” Not even the sins of Sodom can be compared to the sin of unbelief (Matt. 11:23-24). Do you see what debtors we are to God? We are sinners. And our sin involves us in a very great debt.
“But forasmuch as he had not to pay, his lord commanded him to be sold, and his wife, and children, and all that he had, and payment to be made” (v. 25). The sin debt must be paid. Some disposition must be made of our debt. We may try to ignore it; but God will not. We may deny that our debt exists; but the debt still stands. And it must be paid. God is just. Our obligations to him must be met, or we must suffer the consequences forever in hell. God will deliver the debtor to the prison to suffer at the hands of his tormentors forever in hell. Our sin debt must be paid (Rom. 6:25; Ezek. 18:20).
Nothing to Pay
But, like the man in the parable, we have no ability to pay our debt. – “He had not to pay.” We must see this. No one will ever seek forgiveness until he realizes that he has nothing to pay. We are all insolvent debtors. Repentance can never satisfy our debt. Good works cannot erase our debt. Not even the sufferings of hell can satisfy the infinite justice of God. The sufferings of the damned in hell are everlasting torments, because the sufferings of finite creatures can never satisfy the demands of infinite justice. God demands perfect righteousness; but we have none (Isa. 64:6). He demands complete satisfaction, atonement for sin; but we cannot give it. Silver and gold cannot ransom our souls (Ps. 49:6-8). Sacrifice and offering cannot purge away sin (Ps. 40:6; Heb. 10:1-3). We are all bankrupt debtors before God. The sooner we realize it, the better. We have “not to pay” ¾ Nothing with which to pay our debt.
Our Great Surety
If the sin debt must be paid and the sinner has nothing with which to pay, then someone else must pay it for him. The only way the sinner’s debt can be paid is by an infinitely great, blessed, and all-sufficient Surety. That Surety is our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God (Heb. 7:22). Nothing but the blood of Christ can satisfy the justice of God and cancel our debt. There is no other way for our sin debt to be liquidated.
Among the many descriptions used in Holy Scripture to describe our Savior’s glorious person and redemptive work, none can be more instructive, consoling, and assuring than the fact that the Lord Jesus Christ is our Surety, the Surety of the everlasting covenant. As Judah became surety for Benjamin (Gen. 43:8-9), the Lord Jesus Christ became Surety for God’s elect in the covenant of grace. That is to say, the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, willingly, voluntarily assumed the total responsibility of our souls before his Father, making himself honor bound to save us!
A surety is one who makes himself liable and responsible for the debts of another, for debts that he himself did not make. Someone else made the debts. The surety pays them. And the one who made them goes free. The only possible way for sinners to be saved and God’s law be honored, the only way God could ever save us and still be consistent with his justice and truth, is through a Surety. Unless there is someone able and willing to pay our debt, we are all absolutely without hope, doomed forever! But, blessed be God, there is such a Surety! The Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, our Surety, has fully paid the sin debt for his people.
In one of his sermons, C. H. Spurgeon told a story that illustrates this beautifully. — A young man in the army of Nicholas the Great was addicted to gambling. He had gambled so much that he had lost everything he owned and had accumulated a very great debt, which he could not pay. He had come from a good family. But he brought shame upon his family’s name by his deeds. At last, he reached the end of his rope. Completely hopeless, he sat at a table and added up his debts. When the overwhelming sum was known, he wrote these desperate words across the bottom of the page, “Who is able to pay all this?” Exhausted and hopeless, he fell asleep at the table where he sat. As he slept, the Emperor walked through the barracks. When he saw the paper on the table, the great debt, and the question, “Who is able to pay all this?” he leaned over and wrote one word — “Nicholas!”
Even so, when I saw my debt, I cried, “Who can pay my debt? Who can atone for my sin?” And I heard these words echo through my soul -
“Jesus paid it all! All the debt I owed!
Sin had left a crimson stain,
He washed it white as snow!”
The Son of God disposed of the sin debt owed by his people, paying it off completely, by the sacrifice of himself (Gal. 3:13).
Complete atonement Christ has made
And to the very last penny paid
All that His people owed!
Since Jesus my discharge procured
And freely in my room endued
The whole of wrath divine,
Payment God cannot twice demand,
First at my bleeding Surety’s hand,
And then again at mine.
If we would obtain forgiveness for our sin, we must sue for mercy (v. 26). There is a time coming when the King of heaven shall “take account” of all men. God must reckon with us regarding our debt, either by his grace through the gospel, or in his wrath on the day of judgment. Blessed are those sinners whom God calls to account now by his grace and compels to sue for mercy.
God Ready to Forgive
The God of all grace, against whom we have sinned, is ready, very ready, because of his infinite, free love, mercy, and grace, to forgive the sins and cancel the debts of all who call upon him, because he “delighteth in mercy” (v. 27). “The Lord was ready to save me: therefore we will sing my songs to the stringed instruments all the days of our life in the house of the Lord” (Isa. 38:20). Blessed be his name, the God of all grace is “a God ready to pardon” (Neh. 9:17).
In this parable, it looks as though the king is moved with compassion and forgives the debt in response to the debtor’s plea. That is how forgiveness is first viewed by us. But, in reality, the sinner’s suit for mercy is the result of God’s mercy, love, and grace. But I do like the way verse 27 reads. — “Then the lord of that servant was moved with compassion, and loosed him, and forgave him the debt.” What a picture that is of our God!
Though this wicked servant was just that, a wicked servant, he was the representative of all the kings servants. His debt, being cancelled, all their debts were cancelled. That is a great picture of Christ our Substitute. Yet, this man was forgiven of all his debt. As this one servant represented all, so our Lord Jesus Christ is the Representative of all God’s elect. As the representative of all in the kingdom, this man had incurred a great, immeasurable debt. So our Lord Jesus Christ was made sin for us. He incurred all our debt before God, a debt that would have sunk us forever into hell! Yet, just as all the king’s servants were forgiven when that one servant was forgiven, so when Christ was “justified in the Spirit,” released from all the debt he incurred as our Substitute, all God’s elect were justified in him and forgiven of all things forever!
Once the man was loosed from all obligation and responsibility and forgiven his debt, it could never be recalled. His cruelty to his fellow-servant made him liable for another offence, but the debt forgiven could not be unforgiven. Here is the superiority of our blessed Savior and the forgiveness of our sins by his great sacrifice. Our God has forgiven all our sins, all our debt, (past, present, and future), by the precious blood of Christ. The parable certainly is not intended to teach us that our everlasting salvation depends upon our forgiveness of those who offend us. The Scriptures universally declare that God’s forgiveness of our sins is free, eternal, and irreversible.
The teaching of our Lord in this parable is that men and women who are hard hearted, merciless, and unforgiving have never known God’s forgiveness. Our Lord here tells us that as we hope for mercy, we ought to show mercy, as we have been forgiven, we ought to forgive one another. The consciousness of pardoned sin in Christ ought to make us gracious, kind, and forgiving. In a word, grace experienced makes saved sinners gracious. Christ in us is manifest to our brethren when we imitate the goodness and love of God that is ours in him (Eph. 4:32-5:1). The intent of our Lord Jesus in this parable is set forth beautifully in Robert Hawker’s comments regarding it. May God be pleased to give you and me such grace that his words are echoed in our hearts.
“Thanks to my dear Lord for this beautiful and instructive Parable, Yea, Lord! my debt was so great, in ten thousand talents as made me insolvent forever. In vain were it for me to say, Lord have patience with me and I will pay thee all. Never to all eternity, could I have done it. Oh! then add a grace more to the merciful forgiveness of all; and incline my heart to be merciful, even as my Father which is in heaven is merciful! Precious Jesus! help me to imitate thee in all things!”