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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:There but for the grace of God go I
Text:LD 51 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Ps 123:1,2                                                                                          

Ps 99:1,2  [after Apostles’ Creed]

Reading – Matthew 18:21-35; Colossians 2:1-15

Ps 130:1,2,3,4

Sermon – Lord’s Day 51

Ps 116:1,5,7,9

Hy 80:1,2,5,6

* 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, have you ever said this? “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” If you’ve ever said that, you probably meant it as a confession of weakness. On the road of life, on this path into tomorrow and whatever next year brings, I could never make it by myself. As I go, I’m helpless and sure to crumble.

But there is grace. Grace is God’s undeserved favour and kindness toward sinners. His grace is not a fleeting moment of compassion, it is God’s continued faithfulness to his people. It’s his determination never to let go, his love for those unable to pick themselves up and find their way—which is all of us. And grace is extended as a gift of God in Jesus Christ.

“There but for the grace of God go I.” We confess our absolute inability, and we gratefully acknowledge God’s unfailing help. For the LORD has shown grace to me, a sinner once paralyzed in captivity to the devil—such grace that I can get up and walk. I can move forward, at peace with God, and with others. There, but for the grace of God, go I!  

A prayer for grace is at the heart of the fifth petition: “Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors.” As we look with a sense of shame at our many weaknesses and our sins, we ask for mercy, for the forgiveness that God is willing to give through Jesus Christ. And we seek God’s grace so that our lives will reflect to other people the love that is shining upon us from heaven. I preach to you the Word of God as summarized up in Lord’s Day 51,

We pray for the abundant gift of God’s grace. We pray:

  1. under the burden of our debt
  2. in the blood of our Saviour 
  3. for the broadening of our gratitude


1) we pray under the burden of our debt: None of us will deny that we are sinners. We know it from Scripture: “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves” (1 John 1:8). And we know it from our lives, that no sooner have we climbed out of bed in the morning than we begin sinning. Perhaps our first sin of the day is some complaint about the difficult job we have to go to again, or it’s harsh words to our spouse or our siblings, or it’s a lack of any kind of prayer. We begin sinning, and throughout the day, it continues.

Acknowledging that we sin is not hard, and it’s not that uncomfortable—that is, it’s not uncomfortable if we overlook who we’re sinning against. I think we often regard sin as something which is bad, but little more. At the end of the day when we confess our sins, we reflect on things we did wrong, things we should’ve done better—and maybe we even conclude that there is room for improvement.

But sin is more than the sum total of our character flaws and moral missteps. Sin brings us into conflict with God in heaven! When we sin, we are rejecting the LORD’s claim on our life. Sin is lawlessness, John tells us (1 John 3:4). Which means that when we sin, we scorn the law that was given by God himself. To view my sins in a disconnected way, without any reference to God, is to minimize what I have done.

The Lord Jesus wants to emphasize the personal—and therefore the deadly serious—nature of our sin when He teaches us to pray for forgiveness. He says we should pray, “Forgive us our debts.” If we tend to forget who is offended by our sin, the word ‘debt’ helps to remind us. A debt is something owed to someone. When you are in debt, you are under the obligation to pay an amount to another person.

My sins are not just my moral shortcomings, but when I sin, I put myself in God’s debt. That is because as his children, we are obliged to give to God: “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” (Mic 6:8).

That requirement is placed on us all. It’s what we owe, simply because He is God our Maker. What does the Lord say we must we do? Love God and love your neighbor. Short and simple—but impossible. What we owe to God is not paid, so it remains charged against us. And day by day, we do so many things that only add to our debt.

It is right then, for us to have an awareness of our sin. It’s not pretty, but it is necessary. If we will realize our need for God’s grace, we must see all the different shades of our guilt, and strive to confess our sins to God in a sincere way. We ask for God to pardon our sins of lip, of life, and of walk; sins of presumption and pride; of impurity in our thoughts; of sins in private and sins in public; so many sins of time misspent; of prayers irreverently offered or coldly withheld; sins known and unknown, felt and unfelt, remembered or forgotten.  

Our debt is large, and without God’s grace, it is ever-growing. On monthly credit card statements, you see the grand total of what you have spent that month. And there’s a short paragraph meant to give a sense of how much you owe. It says something like this, “If you make the Minimum Payment every month, we estimate it will take 24 years and 2 months to fully repay the outstanding balance.” And that’s without spending one dollar more! Just what you’ve spent in the past, plus interest. That puts it into perspective. It’s a quiet encouragement from the bank to deal with your debt before it gets worse.

That’s like our position as sinners and debtors before God: We don’t make the “minimum payment,” and we keep on spending, sinking ourselves further in the hole. The balance of what we owe to God constantly increases: sin compounding, the penalty multiplying, the debt spiraling out of control.

In Matthew 18, Jesus teaches about forgiving debts: God’s forgiveness of our debts, and how we should also forgive the debts of other people. Jesus tells a parable about a king who one day wanted to settle accounts with his servants. Perhaps he was tired of chasing after a hundred different debtors, or perhaps the king needed some money for a building project. Anyway, the king calls his servants before him so he can collect what they owe.

And soon enough one servant enters, and he is a notorious debtor. The king’s trusty accountant opens the books, and he reports that this servant is in debt ten thousand talents. At that time a talent was the largest possible unit of money. A hard-working labourer could maybe earn one talent in about a year. So ten thousand talents was, to an ordinary person, the income from ten thousand years of working! It’s a fantastically high amount. Today, it’d be something like tens of millions of dollars. This man was hopelessly in debt.

We could have questions about this huge amount: How did one person ever spend so much money? And what did he have to show for it? Should the king not have asked for repayment much earlier?

But Jesus isn’t trying to explain where the money went. Jesus is saying something about what every sinner owes to God, describing how serious is the debt that is owed by all of us. This debt was so large that it was incomprehensible; it was so massive that it couldn’t be paid, even if the poor servant had an eternity to do so. Jesus shows the servant’s utter hopelessness, which will show at the same time how great was the king’s mercy.

And it’s a picture of the debt that we owe to God. Think of it: If that first casual sin I commit tomorrow morning already deserves death, how much of a penalty have I deserved by my sinning throughout the day, until the time I close my eyes for sleep? Or what is the debt I have accrued after 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.

Even over ten thousand years, we could not pay to God the obedience He requires. Neither could we offer enough suffering to satisfy his righteous wrath. As the Catechism says, we are “wretched” (Q&A 126). Being wretched doesn’t just mean pitiable or unhappy. Wretchedness describes our total inability to do anything about our situation.

So we should be locked away. We have no hope, except through the blood of our Saviour. Under the heavy burden of our debt, we plead to the King for his grace, and for Jesus’s sake, God is pleased to answer us.


2) we pray in the blood of our Saviour: If you know yourself burdened with a debt that no one but God could count, where can you turn? Notice how this is the first thing the Lord’s Day says about the forgiveness of our sins. It puts it right up front: “That is, for the sake of Christ’s blood, do not impute to us, wretched sinners, any of our sins.” When we pray for grace, we must start with the cross or we’ll never start at all!

But maybe someone reads this Lord’s Day carefully, and they say, “Wait a minute: When Jesus first taught this prayer, He made no mention of blood, his own or anyone else’s. In fact, when He taught this prayer, Jesus hadn’t even gone to the cross, so how and why would God forgive sins?”

The basis for God cancelling our debts has always been what we read in Hebrews 9:22, “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” Your personal debt before God cannot simply be wiped out, written off like a bad loan. But your personal debt must be paid for with life—paid for with blood. God said from the beginning that the person who sins shall die. Forgiveness can only be granted when a life has been poured out!

In the Old Testament, God was willing to overlook the debts of his people. He had mercy because the lives of many bulls and goats were poured out, year by year. The people gave the life-blood of animals, and this was a substitute for all those sinners who deserved to die.

When Jesus first taught this prayer, this was still how God forgave debts: on the basis of the blood poured out every day at the temple. But as Jesus knew very well, that old way wasn’t enough. Animal sacrifices were lacking—it was like payment in the wrong currency—and they could never really do the job of canceling what was owed to God.

Soon then, the sinner’s plea for grace would be given a new foundation—still blood, but now the blood of Christ himself! As a man just like us, He sacrificed himself once and for all, and He perfectly cleared our name. The cross was the final reckoning of accounts; the blood was the sinner’s debt finally repaid.

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 phrase ‘handwriting of requirements’ is a business term from back then, and it was something like a certificate of debt, like an I.O.U. Just like today, a certificate of debt would be written with the hand of a debtor: “I (the undersigned) owe you (so-and-so) X-amount of dollars.” Such a note has legal standing until the debt can be taken away.

As we pray to God for his grace, we hold an I.O.U. in our hands. It is addressed to God the righteous lawgiver, and it is written with our handwriting, but we can’t even comprehend what and how much is written on it. Like the pathetic servant in Matthew 18, we have no hope of paying it back.

But by faith, we see God assign our debt completely to Christ. Colossians says that God wipes out the handwriting that testified against us, “and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross” (2:14). The action is emphatic: God wipes it out, takes it out of the way, and fastens that slip of paper firmly to the cross.

Because at the cross, Christ pays our debt, and He pays it fully! Without a word from us, God lays all that we owed (or will ever owe) onto Jesus’s account so that we can be forgiven. To echo the words of the parable, “The master of that servant was moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt” (18:27).

Beloved, this is God’s amazing grace! “For the sake of Christ’s blood,” forgiveness is granted. “For the sake of Christ’s blood,” the master has pity on us, his poor servants. “For the sake of Christ’s blood,” our names are cleared, our debt is paid, and our life is restored. Now let us give thanks! 


3) we pray for the broadening of our gratitude: The forgiven servant was one happy man. After being released from his debt, he surely gave thanks to the kind king. The servant had begged and pleaded with his master, “Be patient with me!” and he probably shouted out with joy when the master did have mercy: “O thank you, thank you!”

Yet what kind of gratitude was it? Sadly, it was empty. It was table manners gratitude—the sort of ‘thanks’ you say because your brother passed the BBQ sauce. How do we know this was empty gratitude? The servant who had his debt cancelled shows himself to be a most unmerciful person. For he comes across someone who owes him, but just a comparably small amount, a hundred denarii. And he takes him by the throat, “Pay me what you owe!” (v 28).

Imagine the bank decides you don’t have to pay off the rest of your mortgage. They made so much money last year, they’re writing off what you owe as a gesture of goodwill. Suddenly, you’re debt free, incredibly relieved and thankful.

But even on the way home from your happy meeting with the bank manager, you see an old friend and you go hard after the fifty dollars you once lent him: “You still owe me. Pay it back!” Of course, that’s the height of ingratitude, and totally inappropriate for someone who’d just been forgiven.

Notice how the poor debtor pleads with the servant; he echoes words he himself had cried out to the king not long ago, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you all” (vv 28-29). But the expected mercy doesn’t make an appearance. Forgiveness is very easy until it’s our turn to forgive! The first servant throws the small-time debtor into prison.

The gracious king hears how unforgiving the servant has been, and he “delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him” (v 34). And that was surely the end of the man who had owed so much. It’s shocking, but the king has maintained a sense of fairness: those who are unmerciful will receive no mercy.

Maybe we like this parable, because it ends with justice. The unforgiving servant got exactly what he deserved. Pretty shameful to be so unappreciative, after receiving so much. But the Word of God is like a mirror. We hold it up to our lives and see ourselves for what we are.

For notice how just before Jesus told this parable, Peter had asked, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” (v 21). That’s something we might say: “I’ll forgive, but there’s got to be a limit on it. If the same person wrongs me seven times, I’ve got to draw the line. I can only take so much.” Peter probably reckons he is being generous by suggesting a seven-fold forgiveness. To be that forgiving would take a big heart and a kind spirit, and Peter feels like he’s up to it.

Yet Jesus answers, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven” (v 22). And it’s not about the math, it’s about the mercy. Christ calls us to forgive, even endlessly. Jesus is saying that forgiving is a life-long task, even as you struggle with the same difficult person year after year.

Who can do this? Who can lay aside the grudges that have moldered in our minds for decades? Who can forget the hurt of someone’s cutting remark, or that time you overheard critical comments made against you? Who is able to put the old battles to rest, so that there can be peace? It is so very hard to deal with the complexity of resentment that can exist, even between brothers and sisters in the Lord.

Sometimes people say, “To err is human, to forgive is divine.” In other words, we’re all going to make mistakes, cause offense, transgress and fall short, in our relationships too. That’s the human way, after all. But to forgive is divine—that is God’s specialty, and his alone. He is perfectly gracious, so forgiving this person is sometimes simply beyond us. Goes in the ‘too hard’ basket.

But Jesus says that when we have sinned—accumulating that massive debt before God and deserving its penalty—and then when we have received God’s gracious pardon, we begin to change. The divine actually enters the human, as the Holy Spirit comes near and transforms us. The Catechism describes this as “the evidence of [God’s] grace in us” (Q&A 126).

What is the evidence? First of all, we are abounding with gratitude to God. I give thanks to God for saving me, a hopeless sinner. I give thanks, and then if my gratitude is real, I pray that it may be broadened into all my life, so that in every corner and every space it becomes evident that I have received God’s mercy. The evidence of our lives must bear firm witness.

What is the evidence of God’s grace in you? Receiving grace begins to change our character. Grace makes you more kind, even toward the undeserving. It causes you to show love, even to the unlovely. Grace motivates you to be friendly to those who might not have been the best friend. Receiving God’s grace starts to wear down some of the hard edges of your character; grace makes you softer, gentler, not so harsh and judgmental, but more loving and patient, even with those you’ve long disagreed with or struggled to accept.  

The person who appears before God with debts beyond counting and beyond paying—the servant who receives life when he deserves death—he must go forward as a changed man. I say that he must, for consider Jesus’s warning after the wicked servant meets his end in the dungeon: “So my heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses” (v 35).

That’s a weighty assignment: You must forgive your brother, your sister, and be willing to forgive. Our prayer for God’s abundant grace can’t be disconnected from the fervent desire that we reflect his grace to others. “Forgive my debts O God, as I also forgive my debtors.”

The evidence of God’s grace in our lives is that we do not assume the worst about the people we once clashed with. The evidence is that we do not harbour anger against them or nurture a sense of superiority over them. The evidence of our life must tell it plainly: I have been forgiven freely in grace by God, so I will aim to forgive!

At this petition of the Lord’s prayer we realize most clearly how inadequate we are. On account of our sins, we owe God so much. And despite all our sins, Christ loves us so deeply, though we hardly grasp what a price He paid. And yes, we do struggle to be loving to those who have hurt us, we struggle to forgive them—we don’t understand how it can possibly be done.

But by the grace of God, we can move forward. As the Scripture says, his grace is sufficient. Grace was sufficient to send Jesus, the perfect sacrifice. Grace was sufficient to cover all our sin. And God’s grace is sufficient to help us forgive those who have sinned against us. So ask for his grace, and He will give it.  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 2021, Dr. Reuben Bredenhof

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