Then the angry king sent the man to prison to be tortured until he had paid his entire debt. That’s what my heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters from your heart. (Matthew 18:34-35 NLT)
Most all RCA (Regular Church Attender) Christians know this story: A man owes his king a debt too big to repay, so the king forgives the debt. Then that ungrateful man has a fellow who owes him a small debt thrown in prison because he can’t pay up. The king hears about his hardheartedness and sentences him to being tortured in prison until he repays the debt—in effect, a life sentence.
The way most preachers or teachers talk about this passage, you would think it is only an encouragement to be forgiving. Forgiveness truly is a serious matter. Jesus said in Mark 11:26 that if we do not forgive others, God will not forgive us. That’s serious enough, but Jesus seems to be saying something even more radical here.
Jesus seems to be saying God will send a disciple to hell for harboring unforgiveness—or even for incompletely forgiving. “If you refuse to genuinely forgive your brothers and sisters, your heavenly Father will send you to prison to be tortured until you have repaid the (unpayable) debt.” How is that not hell? What else would it mean?
Is it hyperbole? Jesus was known to say things for effect that sounded not just outrageous but kind of crazy. “If your eye offends you, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better to enter heaven with one eye, than to be cast into hell with two” (Mt. 18:9). “If you come to me and do not hate your own family and even your own life, you cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). But while the idea God would punish a Christian severely for unforgiveness is hard to accept, it doesn’t sound crazy. It just doesn’t fit our common understanding of God and salvation.
It’s important to notice that Jesus isn’t talking to the Pharisees and Sadducees. He isn’t even talking to the generic crowd. He is talking to his disciples, answering a question Peter had asked. Peter, the bold one, probably thought he was being way generous in suggesting a God-follower forgive an offender seven times. He had to be astonished when Jesus went exponential and multiplied Peter’s estimate by 70.
And the whole group must have gone bug-eyed when Jesus said his heavenly Father would send them off to be tortured forever if they harbored unforgiveness against their brothers.
Or maybe they weren’t surprised. The disciples understood the Old Testament. They knew God’s prophets had said harsh things about the disobedience of God’s people. They knew how God had in times past severely punished his people for disobedience.
Like the Old Testament prophets, Jesus also had some harsh things to say. Some pulpits today don’t preach that Jesus. They don’t teach about a God that sends anyone to hell, much less church members. Like a doting grandparent, their kindly deity loves you and is excited about the prospect of welcoming you into heaven. Not a word about his expectations of you, or the danger of presuming on his good graces.
Many preachers and teachers, of course, do warn about God’s judgment—of people who aren’t Christians. Many tell their congregations the truth that one day they will stand before God’s throne to be judged for their actions. But very few will plainly tell RCA Christians that if they aren’t personally helping “the least of these,” they shouldn’t expect to go to heaven.
Much of Western Christianity is shot through with a false teaching about God’s requirement that his people do justice and live righteously (Micah 6:8). Their “Grandpa God” will be very stern with the devil’s children on Judgment Day, but the most he will do to his own disobedient kids is give them less candy than the good kids. They call that “losing some of your reward.”
These churches preach and teach the same Pablum® about Jesus’ demand for justice and righteousness. Their “Grandma Jesus” is sweet, kind, gentle, wise, and always smiling. She loves all kids so much that she actually died to save them from their sins. And she really wants her kids to tell other kids about what she did.
What you won’t hear from them is:
– Only those who do God’s will enter heaven (Mt. 7:21-23).
– Only those who helped “the least of these” will enter heaven (Mt. 25:31-46).
– The kingdom belongs only to those who produce its fruit (Mt. 21:43).
– Christians who don’t produce kingdom fruit will be cut off and burned (John 15:1-6).
– A servant who lives like an unbeliever will be thrown out of the master’s house (Mt. 24:42-51).
In a way it’s hard to blame pastors and teachers. Few of the commentaries they consult deal with the full point Jesus is making in Matthew 18:21-35—or in many other “hard” passages like the ones above. They stick close to the commentaries when Jesus seems to be saying something that makes them uncomfortable—or will get them fired for pointing it out.
On the other hand, unless your preacher or teacher can’t read, they know full well that Jesus and New Testament writers said some things that ought to scare the beejeebers out of even the best Christians. They won’t deal with sharp-edged teachings like this, however, for at least two reasons: Half-Truth Calvinism and the economy.
Half-Truth Calvinism. “Once saved, always saved” churches have no teaching about apostasy, except “It’s impossible” or “That verse is talking about people who were never saved in the first place.” It’s a way of assuring nominal Christians that the beejeebers passages don’t apply to them. Of course, the teaching about “the security of the believer” is rock-solid Bible truth, and we need to contend for that truth. There is another truth, however, for which we also need to contend, and that is the warning that there are serious—even severe—consequences when God’s people are willfully, habitually disobedient. Talking about security in Christ but failing to mention the danger of disobedience is teaching only half the truth.
The Economy. Every professional preacher will admit, in a safe setting, that he has considered confronting disobedience like unforgiveness among church members. But every pastor also knows someone who got fired for doing it. The fact is, many church membership rolls—and even church boards—are filled with people who live in complete disregard for the standard of justice and righteousness Jesus requires. Preachers know what happened to prophets, like John the Baptizer, who spoke truth to power. They know it’s hard to grow a big church by telling people hard truth. They know how hard it would be to find another job in this economy.
These church leaders deal with hard passages by ignoring them. Either they don’t push all the way through to point out what Jesus was actually saying, or they skip the passage entirely and move on to one of the many others that don’t threaten apathy, complacency, and self-absorption.
They ask themselves, WWGJD? And their congregations continue their happy journey down the broad road to destruction (Mt. 7:13-14).
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