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Author:Dr. Reuben Bredenhof
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Congregation:Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary (CRTS)
 Hamilton, Ontario
Preached At:Free Reformed Church of Mt. Nasura
 Mt. Nasura, Western Australia
Title:Getting out of Debt
Text:LD 5 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Forgiveness of Sins

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Ps 67:1,2                                                                                            

Ps 18:1  [after Apostles’ Creed]                                                                                                       

Reading – Matthew 18:21-35; Colossians 2:11-23

Ps 130:2,3,4

Sermon – Lord’s Day 5

Hy 63:1,6

Hy 82:1,3,4

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved in Christ, are you at all in debt? Is there any money that you owe? Probably most of us know what it is to be in debt. Those who have recently been in university or college might have some student debt. Maybe you have a new car, and you’re still making monthly payments. Or you have a mortgage, and a fistful of credit cards. When I was growing up, any money that we borrowed from our parents would be written as an I.O.U., and taped inside one of the kitchen cupboards until it was paid.

Debt can feel like a real burden, like when we feel the pinch of making payments, or we worry that interest rates will go up. So being done with a debt is cause for celebration! Some will even have a special ceremony in the backyard when their mortgage is finally paid off, and burn all those papers from the bank.

In the Bible, being in debt is also a metaphor to show our serious guilt before God. Think about how Jesus taught us to pray, “Forgive us our debts.” He says that we should pray every day for God to cancel what’s outstanding between him and us. And why does Jesus call our sin a “debt?” For two reasons. We’re in debt because we’re obligated to give our obedience to God as Creator. He deserves our service! But then we’re also in debt to God for all the sins that we’ve committed—we owe the Judge the penalty that He’s imposed.

So are you at all in debt? Totally! Scripture says that we’re badly in the hole, that we’re behind on every payment that we should’ve been making for as long as we’ve been alive. It’s getting worse every day, and there’s nothing that we can do about it ourselves. That’s the subject of Lord’s Day 5. But we’re not left without hope of relief. This is our theme,

God in his righteousness requires a full payment for sin:

  1. the debt we daily increase
  2. the price we cannot pay
  3. the Mediator who can cover the cost


1. the debt we daily increase: No Christian would deny that he’s sinful. But the danger is that we think about our sin in an impersonal way. Instead of seeing our sins as offenses against God’s majesty, we prefer to speak of sin in a way that’s less severe. “Sure, I make mistakes,” we’ll say, “I’ve got my failings.” It’s as if we forget that there’s a living, powerful and holy Being who is offended whenever we sin. 

The word “debt” helps to remind us, for a debt is something that is owed to someone, it’s an obligation to pay out to another person. And because God made us, and gave us the breath of life, we owe him our very selves. We were created to serve him.

More than that, we are his covenant children. God came down to this earth, and He entered into a special bond with a particular people. It started with Abraham and his physical descendants, and it continues with believers and their children today. And as his redeemed children, we’re obligated to present to God a life of obedience. We know the text from Micah 6:8, “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” This requirement—this obligation—can be summed up even briefer than that. What does the Lord say that we must we pay? “Give love to God, and give love to your neighbor.”

Short and sweet. Simple, but impossible for anyone to pay on his own. We can’t ever give God enough love, enough faith—it’s not good enough, and it’s not constant enough. The goodness and service that we owe God aren’t properly given, with the result that it remains on our account. They are works undone!

And then we do things that add to our debt. For what about our daily sin? That has a steep price, too. “The soul who sins shall die,” God says in Ezekiel. There’s a price, a penalty for sin—for every sin, the price is blood, it’s our life. The price of sin puts us so far in the red that we can’t see our way out.

Consider the prayer in Psalm 130, “If you, LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” (v 3). If the LORD kept track of sins without ever forgiving us, without removing that pile of debt from our account, no one could stand before him. We’d be sunk into the depths forever—we are poorer than we think.

So very realistically the Catechism says, “We daily increase our debt” (Q&A 13). Daily increasing… That’s like how countries will have a “Debt Clock,” a picture of the national debt, as it goes up with every passing second. The government is spending this much every hour, the interest on all our loans is at this rate, and just servicing the massive debt costs this much every day—and so the numbers just kept rolling over: one million, two million, ten million, ascending into the billions of dollars.

A debt clock with its constantly increasing numbers is a good image for us. Every hour of every day, we withhold from God the love He requires, and we do the things that He forbids. Every hour, the penalty for our sinfulness gets added to, like interest compounding on unpaid bills. And our debt just spirals out of control. It’s not great news. It’s oppressive, and we might dread that day when we’re called to pay.

Jesus once told a parable about this, about how much we owe to God. In Matthew 18 there’s a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. Perhaps he was tired of chasing after a hundred different debtors, or perhaps he needed money for a building project. Anyway, the king calls his servants before him so he can collect what they owe.

And soon one servant appears who’s a infamous debtor. The books are opened, all the columns are added up, and it’s found that this servant is in debt ten thousand talents. How much is that? At that time a talent was the largest possible unit of money. A hard-working labourer could hope to earn one talent in about a year. So ten thousand talents was, to an ordinary person, the proceeds of ten thousand years of working! It’s a fantastically high amount. Today, it’d be something like tens of millions of dollars. This one man was hopelessly in the hole.

We have questions about that massive amount: How did one person ever spend so much money? What did he have to show for it? And shouldn’t the king have asked for repayment much earlier? But that’s not the point. The point isn’t exactly how much he owed, and even where the money went. Because with the parable, Jesus is saying something about what every sinner owes to God, about how serious is the debt owed by all of us.

Think of it: If one of our sins deserves eternal death, how much of a penalty do we earn by our sinning in a single day? Or in a whole year of sinning? How about over a lifetime of sinning? It’s beyond us to understand. What we owe to God is practically uncountable, a massive debt. And really, like that servant, what do we ever have to show for our sin? Besides some passing pleasure, do we ever get ahead by breaking God’s law? Does it profit us? When we sin, we show how bankrupt we actually are. Paul describes our condition in Colossians 2:13, “You [are] dead in your trespasses…” If you’re dead in sin, you’re not in a position to get into God’s good books. Unless we get a divine bailout plan, we’re not able to give God what is owing.


2. the price we cannot pay: On monthly credit card statements there’s a little paragraph that’s meant to give a sense of how much you owe. It’ll say something like this, “If you make the Minimum Payment every month, we estimate it will take 44 years and 3 months to fully repay the outstanding balance.” That puts it into perspective, doesn’t it? It’s a not-so-subtle encouragement to deal with your debt before it gets worse.

If we go back to the servant of Matthew 18, the first thing that becomes clear is that “he was not able to pay” (v 25). Wherever it had all gone, he didn’t have the money on hand. And as we said, if the servant worked hard every day for the rest of his life, and he lived to be as old as the oldest man in the Bible, he’d still have only paid back one tenth of what he owed.

What options were available to the king, if he wanted his money? Only this, “He commanded that the servant be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and that payment be made” (v 25). For the rest of their days, the man and his family would have to work for someone else. From selling them into slavery, the king could probably make several hundred dollars—again, not even close what was owed! Every attempt to repay this debt is a fantasy.

And what about us, indebted to God? We know this, “God demands that his justice be satisfied. Therefore we must make full payment, either by ourselves or through another” (Q&A 12). That just requirement isn’t going to change. So can we make the payment ourselves? Are we able to compensate God for what we’ve done against him? Maybe we can do it by our good accomplishments, by our sacrifices and gifts?

That’s probably always in the Christian’s heart, the thought that we can put things right by our own effort. We know that we sinned in the past, but maybe we can balance that out today by self-denial and service. Impress God with all our giving! Be good to God, and He’ll be good to us. Because we’ve learned from the rest of life that effort always counts for something, right? For instance, if we invest ourselves in our relationships, then we’ll enjoy the fruits of love and fellowship. Or if we work hard at school, one day we’ll be rewarded with a good job. Diligent labour has a payoff.

So shouldn’t that be the formula in our relationship with God? “Effort counts.” So if you’re going to be blessed, then you need to be in church. And be nice to your neighbours. Don’t swear, drink too much, or sleep around. Read your Bible, pray every day. Those are rules that we can keep! And if we complete the requirements, won’t that cause God to smile on us? Won’t these good things go on the ledger somewhere, and give us a positive balance? You’d think so.

The Colossians too, were talking a lot about rules, about things like circumcision and food laws and holy days. They wanted to carefully regulate all of life, so they said, “Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle” (2:21). Maybe if you lead a strict life, they said, you’ll be able to claim something from God.

But Paul has bad news. If you think that you can keep the law—if you can be right with God by your own obedience and goodness—then you have to do so fully, perfectly. If you’re going to pay the debt yourself, you have to commit to doing it completely.

And that project is doomed even before you start. We know from Scripture that every good work is contaminated by corrupt motives. Every positive conversation is marred by imperfect words. Every act of service we do is inadequate in some way. Our good works are a pretend currency—it’s like going into the grocery store and trying to pay for your groceries with a fistful of Monopoly money. You won't get anywhere. Our good works just cannot pay our way.

And that’s just the “good” we owe God. What about his wrath, for sins committed? Can we present God with a gift good enough to appease his righteous wrath? No. What we owe can’t be paid, not over 25 years, not over ten thousand, not over an eternity. The Catechism is right to answer the question, “Can we by ourselves make this payment?” with “Certainly not” (Q&A 13).

That’s the reality in Jesus’ parable too. For later, the servant who’d been forgiven his debt shows himself to a most unmerciful person. After being released from his impossible burden, he comes across someone who owes him a comparably small amount. But he takes him by the throat, “Pay me what you owe!” (v 28). Imagine having your own mortgage paid off in full by someone, without you doing anything for it. Think of the relief and joy you’d feel. But then same day, you go hard after the twenty dollars you once lent to your friend: “Pay it back!” That’d be so ungrateful.

Jesus teaches a lesson here on how we need to forgive one another. Those who are forgiven much, should love much! When God has forgiven us so completely, so generously, what are the small grudges that we hold against each other? Yet it seems like in an instant we can remember the hurts from long ago, and we get angry again over things that happened in the past. But after receiving God’s amazing grace, how can we still resent this person, or that family? After being forgiven so freely and fully, why do we keep bringing up the shortcomings and misdeeds of others? Tens of millions of dollars canceled from our account in heaven, and we’re still worried about fifty cents? Doesn’t seem right, does it? Having been forgiven all, aren’t you willing to forgive?

So see what happens to that unmerciful servant. The king hears how wicked he’d been, and he “delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him” (v 34). Such was the end of the man who had owed so much. Of course, torture wouldn’t increase his net worth. But the king maintains a sense of justice: the unmerciful will receive no mercy.

Justice is what our God always maintains. Because we’re bankrupt, God could throw us into captivity to be tormented. That should be our home for eternity, described as a place of great weeping and gnashing of teeth. We can’t pay to keep ourselves out of there. And neither can we get someone else to pay. Not unless they’re especially well-qualified for the job: “One who is a true and righteous man, and yet more powerful than all creatures; that is, one who is at the same time true God” (Q&A 15). That’s the good news in our next point.


3. the mediator who covers the cost: When Jesus teaches the Lord’s Prayer, this is his beautiful starting point: the Father you’re talking to is gracious! He abounds in mercy. Jesus still spoke about owing God. But He never suggests that we’re able to make the payment ourselves. Instead, Jesus opens a door to grace: “Forgive us our debts.”

For that’s who God is. Like the sinner sang so long ago in Psalm 130, “If you, LORD, should mark iniquities, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with you… With the LORD there is mercy and abundant redemption.” It’s only through the compassion of the LORD that the debt can be cancelled—there’s simply no other way. That’s what Paul taught the Colossians too. If you’re dead in sin, your only hope is in his grace: “You, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses” (v 13). He has forgiven!

How was it possible? Did God just write the debt off the books? Throw out the ledger? We learned in Lord's Day 4 about the perfect righteousness of God, that He can’t relax his holy standards. Payment needs to be made through that one who is perfectly qualified.

And that is Jesus, the Christ, our Saviour! He was a true man, born under the law, under all its demands. And Jesus kept the law, obeyed it like we never could. He gave to God all those good things required of us: holy love, perfect faith, unwavering obedience, flawless service. What’s more, Christ the Righteous One agreed to be considered the worst of sinners. He accepted the charges of someone who’d broken every commandment of the Lord, He became someone who ought to be punished accordingly.

This is how Colossians 2:14 describes the work of Christ, “He wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us.” That’s such a powerful verse about what Christ has done for us! The phrase “handwriting of requirements” is a business term from Paul’s time. We would call “the handwriting of requirement” something like a certificate of debt, an I.O.U. Back then, it’d be written with the hand of a debtor: “I (the undersigned) owe you (so-and-so) X-amount of dollars.” Such a note stands between the two people, until the debt could be taken away.

That’s all we hold in our trembling hands: an I.O.U., one addressed to God the righteous law-giver and judge. And by itself, it’s our one-way ticket to hell. Like we said, we can’t even fathom how much is written on that little slip. But by faith we see God assign our debt to Christ. The Judge lays all that we owed, and will ever owe, on his account. For Christ is willing to pay it, and He pays it all! He lived a perfect and righteous life, then in death He bore the burden of God’s eternal wrath against sin. Through Christ’s work, God takes all we owed him, and He wipes it away. Like it was never there. Blotted out—all by grace.

Grace alone: that’s an uplifting message. For some Christians, there’s a profound sense that your sins are simply too many. All your flaws and failures are like a stain that won’t wash out. Some Christians go through life, feeling like they’re rotten to the core—they’re crippled by guilt. They’re convinced they’re just not good enough. They feel that if God isn’t disgusted with them, at best He only tolerates them. He sure doesn’t love them, they’re such sinners and failures. It’s like God is always ready to dig up that I.O.U. and wave it in front of us, to keep us groveling and feeling low. But He doesn’t, for God is rich in mercy!

Grace alone: it’s also a humbling message. Because for other Christians, the trouble isn’t the record of their sins, or a sense of inadequacy. It’s our pride. We’re confident that God likes us, for who we are. We’ve found a worth in God’s eyes by things that we can do, whether being a good person, praying everyday, or serving in the church. We think that our I.O.U. can’t have been that big.

But for both kinds of people, and everyone in between, the answer is the same: the gospel of Jesus, our mediator. This gospel elevates the lowly sinner, and it humbles the proud sinner. It says your deepest sins and your shameful secrets are irrelevant when it comes to what Christ has done. And it says your proudest contributions and your years of faithful service are also irrelevant when it comes to what Christ has done. In Christ, the payment is made. You can’t add to it. You can’t subtract from it. You only have to access it, by faith. Believe in Christ as your only Saviour and your Lord!

And if you believe, then you need to remember that other lesson taught in Matthew 18. Like the one there who was so deep in debt, we’ve been forgiven much—now we have to love much. Those who have received mercy, need to show mercy—and just recall what mercy is: it’s when you’re kind to the undeserving, it’s when you show love to the unlovely, it’s being friendly to those who might not have been the best friend. That’s mercy. It’s like what Paul says in Romans 13:8, “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another.” In Christ, that is our only debt!  Amen. 

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2016, Dr. Reuben Bredenhof

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