Is the Orthodox Church a cold, worldly organization, or the source of true light, theology, Grace, and Uncreated Energy of the Holy Spirit in the world?
The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant, we heard in today’s Gospel Reading, is about forgiveness. A double forgiveness. The one God has for us and the one we are supposed to have for one another. The emphasis is on the second, but today allow me to turn our attention mainly to the first: God’s forgiveness towards us. As we shall see, the forgiveness we are expected to have for one another is based on the correct understanding on our part of God’s forgiveness towards us.
Receiving God’s forgiveness (the Protestant view)
There are those who believe that all it takes to receive God’s forgiveness is to accept it. You see, they say, Christ died on the Cross, so that all our debts may be wiped out. He did it all for us. His blood on the Cross erased any and all debts our sins have created. Here is what, possibly the most respected Protestant preacher, Billy Graham, says on the subject, in one of his newspaper columns:
DEAR DR. GRAHAM: I would give anything to know that God has forgiven me. I know I’ve done many things that are wrong, and down inside I yearn to be clean. But I know I don’t have any hope because God couldn’t possibly love a person as bad as I have been. —C.N.
DEAR C.N.: There’s only one kind of person that God cannot forgive—and that’s the person who refuses to accept his forgiveness.
Suppose, for a moment, that you were very poor, and one day you received a call from a lawyer who said you have just inherited a million dollars from an uncle you hardly knew. That would be good news.
But what if you never claimed it or accepted it? The uncle did everything possible to make it available to you. The only thing that would prevent you from getting it would be your refusal to accept it. If you refused, you would remain poor the rest of your life.
And that is somewhat the way it is with God and his forgiveness. You see, God has done everything that would ever be necessary to make your forgiveness possible.
What has he done? He has sent his only son, Jesus Christ, to be the perfect and complete sacrifice for your sins. Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15). Yes, Christ paid the price for your sins. All you have to do is accept his forgiveness.
How can you do that? Simply reach out in faith and tell God that you know you are a sinner, and you want Christ to come into your life and cleanse you of your sins. If you do that, God—who cannot lie—has promised to forgive you.
“If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just, and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9)
Are we forgiven just because we ask?
What is wrong with Dr. Graham’s reply? Well, it is a very good reply. It just typically falls short. Of course Christ has done everything—from His side. His last words on the Cross were, “It is accomplished.” It’s all done. My mission is complete. I have finished what I came to do. So we know that God has forgiven us. That’s a given. Trouble is, accepting His forgiveness is not as simple as Dr. Graham would like us to believe.
The unmerciful servant would not have to be brought back to give an account of his actions. He was already forgiven, wasn’t he? This is somewhat bold to say, my friends, but it is true: All the blood that Christ has shed on the Cross, was of no use to this miserable man, because he had a heart of stone. He also had to do something, so that the Lord’s forgiveness would be made available in his life.
Do we have to do anything?
God tells us in this parable: “I don’t want your words, I want your actions! I don’t want to hear, Lord, Lord, when you lord it on your brothers and sisters.” Cleansing of sins doesn’t come with wishful thinking. It requires a life-long struggle, an incessant battle against our sinful inclinations, against the world and against the devil.
This forgiveness towards anyone and everyone, this absolute, unquestionable pardon of any wrongdoing committed against us, doesn’t come easy. So much so, that in this parable taught by the Lord, He depicts us, He describes us in the unmerciful servant. He represents you and me. So the Lord is cautioning us and warning us: Watch out! The forgiveness that I have for you is based upon the forgiveness you have for your fellow human being. Don’t let my sacrifice be in vain!
Is belief alone sufficient to receive forgiveness?
Dr. Graham doesn’t say a word about the second half of our petition for forgiveness in the Lord’s Prayer, which is a condition for receiving forgiveness: “And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass us against us.” The truth of the matter is that we are forgiven by God to the extent we forgive others. And if there is any doubt that he is addressing the subject from our standpoint of accepting God’s forgiveness, allow me to bring to you a second column of his:
DEAR DR. GRAHAM: I try extremely hard every day to make God happy, doing my best to be a good person and trying to think the way I think God wants me to. But frankly I am miserable, and I don’t know how much longer I can keep this up. What is wrong? —W.H.
DEAR W.H.: I suspect one reason you are unhappy is that you sense you can never do enough to please God and make him happy with you. No matter how much you do, there still is the lurking fear in your mind that you have not done enough, and that he must still not be pleased with you.
The real problem, however, is that you have misunderstood God’s love for us. Is God’s love something we earn—or is it something we can only accept? Think about that a moment. The truth is, we can never earn God’s love, no matter how good we are—and the reason is because God is holy and perfect, and God’s standard is perfection. The Bible warns, “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty (in God’s eyes) of breaking all of it” (James 2:10).
No, God’s love is not something we can ever earn.
But listen: God’s love is something we can accept! You see, God accepts us just as we are, when we turn in faith to him and ask Christ to take away our sins. We need his forgiveness, and he has promised to forgive us, because Jesus Christ died on the cross to take away our sins.
“No man can justify himself before God by a perfect performance of the Law’s demands. … The whole matter is now on a different plane—believing instead of achieving“ (Romans 3:20, 27, Phillips Translation).
I invite you to accept God’s love for you, by inviting Jesus Christ to come into your life. Trust him instead of yourself and your own efforts.
So God has forgiven us and He accepts us just the way we are! … All we have to do is to believe that, and give up our futile effort to achieve perfection. It seems Dr. Graham has been watching Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood a lot (you know, “I like you just the way you are.”). But is this good advice? Is it biblical? Let’s see.
A holy life is necessary to obtain God’s forgiveness
Says the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Colossians:
God forgave us all our sins; He canceled the unfavorable record of our debts with its binding rules and did away with it completely by nailing it to the Cross (Col. 12:13-14).
So, yes Christ did His part. What about us, however: Is there nothing else for us, other than shouting, “Alleluiah,” and “Praise the Lord”? Alleluiah we must shout and the Lord must we praise. But we should also “Try to be at peace with everyone, and to live a holy life, because”, the same Apostle declares, “no one will see the Lord without it” (Heb. 12:14). What? God’s forgiveness is not enough? There is something that I need to do? So if I don’t live a holy life, Christ’s salvation will be of no use to me?
The truth, my dear friends, is that yes, we have been healed by Christ’s wounds (cf. 1 Pet. 2:24), and yes, “Christ Himself is the means by which our sins are forgiven” (1 John 2:2), and yes, “our sins are forgiven for the sake of Christ” (1 John 2:12). But there is another side to it. Says St. John the Theologian:
Let no one deceive you, my children! Whoever does what is right is righteous, just as Christ is righteous. Whoever continues to sin belongs to the Devil.
And further down he adds:
Here is the clear difference between God’s children and the Devil’s children: anyone who does not do what is right or does not love his brother is not God’s child. (1 John 3:7-8. 10)
It would be tragic, my dear brothers and sisters in Christ, to take God’s forgiveness for granted. God’s forgiveness must be sought and fought for.
It is true that we keep sinning. But we don’t say, It’s all right; God has already forgiven us. Instead we go to Him every time, with abundant tears, to wipe our offenses. I’m going to say something else bold, but equally true: Our sins are erased as much by Christ’s blood, as they are by our own tears!
Forgiveness is not guaranteed, unless…
There are those who call us Orthodox Christians, triumphalist, because we profess to be in the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church of God, which we identify with the Orthodox Church. They should know that, according to our beliefs, having gained entrance into the Church of God through baptism and Chrismation and receiving the precious Body and Blood of the Lord as a daily spiritual sustenance, is not a guarantee of our salvation. Right after receiving the Holy Eucharist, in one of the “Prayers After Receiving Holy Communion,” we call ourselves “sinners” and “unworthy.” Look now at the overconfidence and presumption—true hubris—of the “I’m saved” crowd and see where the triumphalism is.
In the Orthodox Church, almost every prayer service includes the 50th psalm. In it we ask God to have mercy on us, to forgive us, according to His love and compassion. But at the same time we acknowledge our sins, in fact we say that we have our sins constantly in our mind. No wonder we recite this psalm so often. It expresses best the mindset of the Orthodox, the proper spirit and ethos we should have.
How we reconcile our debts with God
Now let’s get another look at the unmerciful servant: How did he obtain the pardon of his debt? He fell on his knees and implored his master. That’s how we obtain the forgiveness of our debts also, but with sincerity and true contrition of heart. That’s what the parable is meant to teach us. To keep imploring the Lord, on our knees, with abundant tears. For what we are asking is no small thing: the wiping off of all our offenses. According to St. Symeon the New Theologian the 10,000 talents stand for our sins.1 That’s why St. Basil the Great says:
“O how terrible the punishment that I have drawn upon myself! How is it that my eyes are not streaming with constant tears? If only my tears flowed from the cradle to the grave, at every hour and every minute of my tortured life!” 2
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ: How do you reconcile your debts with God?
Don’t be so certain of the Lord’s forgiveness that you go on committing one sin after another. Don’t think that His mercy is so great that He will forgive your sins no matter how many they are. He does show mercy, but He also shows His furious anger with sinners. (Sirach 5:5-6)
Thus says wise Sirach.
So let us not be presumptuous of God’s forgiveness. Let us rather reflect on God’s longsuffering, His infinite tolerance, love and compassion, and thus be led to true repentance.
To expect God’s forgiveness and count on it requires a change of heart. A heart that stands before God clean, pure, without rancor, malice, hate, revenge, grudge, envy; a compassionate heart, a heart full of goodness and love. If not, be certain that “judgment will be without mercy to one who has shown no mercy” (James 2:13). Thus, by forgiving our fellow human being sincerely and with all our heart, we may hope that our numberless transgressions and faults will also be forgiven by the All-Merciful God. Amen.
- “Practical and Theological Texts”, 99, Phil. III, pp. 45-46
- In Koinotis, vol. 1.2, July ’96, p. 9
Article graphics and editing: Tony Hatzidakis