The questioner writes, "Does Matthew 18:23-35 teach that a person can be saved (have his debt paid) and then lose the salvation (be thrown into prison again)? How would you answer the Arminian on this passage?" I will not quote the entire passage as I usually do; it is too long. Let me encourage you to read it before studying this article. The passage records the parable of the wicked servant who was forgiven a large sum which he owed to his king. Rather than being thankful for the kindness of the king, he went to one of his fellow servants and compelled this man to pay him back a very small sum which his fellow servant owed. The basic meaning and point of the parable is stated by the Lord Himself: "So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses" (35).
The servant owed his king an immense debt, which he could never pay back. Here the Lord gives a vivid picture of the enormous debt which we owe God because of our sin. We can never pay Him back.
The servant earnestly pleaded with the king to give him time to pay the debt, something the servant could never have done. The king’s great mercy in forgiving his servant depicts the infinite mercy of God towards undeserving sinners.
Yet the servant showed no mercy at all to a fellow servant who owed him only a few pennies. When his fellow servant asked for time, the forgiven servant refused to grant it. In this way Jesus teaches that, though we all sin against each other, in comparison with what we owe God, the debt we have towards our fellow saints is almost nothing. Yet when our fellow saints sin against us, we refuse to forgive them and harbor grudges and hard feelings towards them!
The Scriptures are very pointed and emphatic about the truth taught in this parable. Not only is the point Jesus is making spoken of time and again in sacred Writ, but Jesus underscores the point in His instruction concerning our prayers, when He gave us what has become known as the Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:9-13). This prayer includes a petition for the forgiveness of sins, a most important petition that we must make. But even in the prayer, those who ask for forgiveness confess that they seek forgiveness from God "as we forgive our debtors."
In addition, this fifth petition is the only petition to which the Lord immediately calls specific attention afterwards: "For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: but if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses" (Matt. 6:14-15).
The question has to do with the Arminian interpretation of the parable. The Arminian argues that the servant was forgiven, but that forgiveness was revoked when he failed to forgive his fellow servant. Hence, a person may be forgiven by God, but lose that forgiveness if he fails to forgive his brother. This would imply the possibility of losing one’s salvation. Such is not, however, the case. This Arminian interpretation is superficial and erroneous.
We should note that Matthew 18:23-35 is a parable. In a parable not every point may be made to designate some heavenly or spiritual truth. In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus speaks of a conversation between the rich man in hell and Abraham in whose bosom Lazarus has found rest. We may not deduce from this parable that the wicked in hell are able to converse with the saints in heaven. No more here may we press the point that the servant who was forgiven his huge debt was truly forgiven by God.
Nevertheless, an important point is made here, if only we remember that the Lord is speaking of our conscious experience of forgiveness. The fact is that the work of Christ’s atoning sacrifice was so perfect and complete that at the moment He died on the cross, all the sins of all the elect for whom He died were forgiven by God. A child of God who appropriates the great blessedness of forgiveness can confidently say, "2000 years ago, when my Savior said, ‘It is finished,’ my sins were forgiven by God." Our sins were objectively blotted out.
One of the blessings of salvation is the conscious assurance of forgiveness which is given us by the Spirit of Christ. The believer sings Psalm 32:1: "Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered." In the parable, the Lord is saying several things about that conscious assurance of forgiveness. First, He is saying that there are people who claim to be forgiven, but who, in fact, are not. They can be recognized by the fact that they will not forgive their brother. By their failure to forgive their brother, they show they are not really forgiven. Second, if they really knew the wonder of God’s forgiveness and the immensity of their own sin, they would easily forgive the minor and relatively insignificant sins their brother has committed against them. Third, we come to the assurance of forgiveness only in the way of forgiving our brother. If he sins against us, and we continue to hold our grudge—if we say, "I will forgive, but never forget"—we will never know forgiveness ourselves. We ask, according to the Lord’s Prayer, forgiveness for ourselves, as those conscious of having forgiven our brother.
The teaching of the parable is true in the absolute sense of hypocrites in the church who claim to be forgiven, but are not. In a relative sense, we must apply this parable to ourselves. How difficult it is for us to forgive our brother when we are the one sinned against! But God will have none of this!
- Volume: 10
- Issue: 4
Prof. Herman Hanko (Wife: Wilma)
Ordained: October 1955
Pastorates: Hope, Walker, MI - 1955; Doon, IA - 1963; Professor to the Protestant Reformed Seminary - 1965
Emeritus: 2001Website: www.sermonaudio.com/search.asp?speakeronly=true&currsection=sermonsspeaker&keyword=Prof._Herman_Hanko
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