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Author:Rev. Jeremy Segstro
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Congregation:Cloverdale Canadian Reformed Church
 Surrey, BC
Title:In the Fifth Petition, We Encounter a Paradox
Text:LD 51 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Reading: Matthew 18: 21-35

Lesson: Lord’s Day 51



  1. Christ’s Limitless Atonement

  2. Our Limited Request


  1. Psalm 93: 1, 4

  2. Psalm 69: 1, 2, 10, 11

  3. Psalm 32: 1, 3

  4. Hymn 2

  5. Psalm 63: 1, 2

  6. Hymn 7: 1, 2, 4


Words to Listen For: rap, tulip, bread, hollow, fruit


Questions for Understanding:

  1. What’s the evidence that you are a friend?  A foe?

  2. What’s the “how” of the central Christian paradox?

  3. What the “why” of the central Christian paradox?

  4. Why don’t we have to be like the Young People’s Bible Study in Winnipeg?

  5. Is forgiveness easy for Christians?  Why or why not?

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Jeremy Segstro, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved congregation of Jesus Christ,

“Who goes there?  Be ye friend, or foe?”

This is question that, hundreds of years ago, would have come from a sentry, atop a castle wall.

Are you a friend, or an enemy?  Should I open the gate to you that you may eat and drink with the king in his castle, or, are you trying to harm the king?  Should I keep you out with my moat, my wall, my gate?

Are you friend or foe?

It seems like an easy question to answer.  You fall into one of these camps, and there isn’t really any middle ground there.

But let’s switch things up.  We’ll keep the question the same, but change the circumstances.

Instead of a castle gate, imagine a gate to the heavenly city.  Instead of a king, imagine THE KING.  The LORD, enrobed in majesty.  He is behind those walls, and He is asking you the question - “Are you friend, or foe?”

How do you answer this question?  And before you answer, remember that our Heavenly King knows you.  He knows everything about you.  He knows your heart.  He knows your history.  So don’t be so quick to answer this question.  Let’s look at the evidence together.


You WANT to say “friend”... and why?

  • Well, you’re here, sitting under the preaching.  If you weren’t a friend, would you care about the truth of God’s Word?

  • You gave some money to the church

  • You volunteered your time at the Community Kitchen

  • You pray before your meals

But, despite this evidence, should you say “foe?”  After all, each and every sin is rebellion against God.  So…

  • You rebelled against Him today.  Maybe once, maybe 10 times, maybe 100.

  • Yesterday, you rebelled against Him.  And the day before that, and the day before that.

You have a rap sheet as long as your arm.  You might be a citizen of the kingdom, but there’s a good amount of evidence that declares you to be a TREASONOUS citizen.  So, what is it?  Friend, or foe?'s the thing: it’s BOTH.


But the good news is that it’s not both in equal measure.  It is ONE with the TAINT of the other.  And that is why I say that we are “sinful saints,” as opposed to “holy sinners.”

Our PRIMARY IDENTITY is our NEW IDENTITY in Jesus Christ.  As the Apostle Paul triumphantly declares in 1 Corinthians 6: you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.

This is WHO YOU ARE.  And yet, as much as we wish it weren’t so, saints still sin.  Saints still sin.  And it is because of this paradox - holy and yet sinful, pure and yet stained…that we need to live a repentant life.

As saints, we CAN PRAY, and as sinners, we MUST PRAY.  Let’s examine, in particular


  1. Christ’s Limitless Atonement is met with

  2. Our Limited Request


Christ’s Limitless Atonement

In the last few months, as we have been examining prayer, going through the various petitions in the Lord’s prayer, have you found yourself re-awakened to the beauty of prayer?  The privilege of prayer?  The necessity of prayer?

Let me repeat what I just said, moments ago:  As saints, we CAN pray, and as sinners, we MUST pray.

Let’s examine that together for a moment, for this addresses the paradox central to the Christian life.

We are saints - literally “holy ones.”  This is how Paul addresses the church in Corinth, in Ephesus, in Philippi, and in Colossae.

As saints, they have access to the throneroom of God.  They can go in and out, something that in the Old Testament required sacrifice and ceremonial washing and special lineage.  But New Testament saints, what we are as well, we can simply close our eyes, fold our hands, and POOF!  There we are in God’s throneroom!  We have such an immense privilege.  And the only thing that can come close to that privilege is our immense need.

The Corinthian, Ephesian, Philippian and Colossian churches were filled with saints…and yet, what do we find in these letters?  The church at Corinth was filled with sexual sin, and they despised the poor.  The church at Ephesus struggled with unity, and it seems that they were prone to false teaching.  The church at Philippi had infighting, and were discouraged over Paul’s imprisonment, and their own difficulties.  And the Colossians tried to mix Christianity with the worship of various spirits.

And I’m sure you can find similar struggles among us here today in _________.  We fit rather well in this motley crew, chosen by Christ.  We are saints, and yet we are sinners.  We have access to the heavenly throneroom, and we desperately need to make use of it.

This is the baffling paradox that is central to our Christian faith, and because of it, we are left wondering two things.  We are left wondering HOW - since a paradox is, seemingly contradictory, and our God is a God of order.  How?  And, then, perhaps in a deeper way than the HOW, we are left wondering WHY?

HOW and WHY.

And Scripture only answers one of these fully.  The HOW is clear, whereas the WHY is a little more difficult.  But we will tackle both of these together this afternoon.

The HOW.

Well, the HOW rests on Christ’s atonement.  And I spoke of this atonement being LIMITLESS, which, as the senior catechism students might tell you, is a bit of a loaded word.  We’ve been studying the Canons of Dort in Senior Catechism, and the Canons speak of LIMITED ATONEMENT.  That’s the “L” in TULIP!

And that’s true.  Christ’s atonement is limited in one way, and limitless in another.  It is limited in the sense that Christ only atones for His people.  Christ’s sacrifice was only for the elect.  The church.  It was for the sheep and not the goats.

But in another way, it is limitless.  The atonement is limitless when it comes to its VALUE - the blood of Christ is of INFINITE VALUE, and it is limitless when it comes to WHICH SINS it covers over.

Christ’s atonement is effective for any and all sins.  If WE REPENT, HE FORGIVES.  There is no sin that you can sin that is so grave, that is so evil and horrific that the sin is greater than the sacrifice.  Jesus’ arms are big enough to welcome EVEN YOU into His family.  Jesus’ blood is a powerful enough stain remover that you WILL be washed, white as snow.

This is what the catechism speaks of in this Lord’s Day when it says “For the sake of Christ’s blood, do not impute to us, wretched sinners, ANY OF OUR TRANSGRESSIONS, nor the evil which still clings to us.”

And this is not a hopeless plea.  It is heartfelt, it is real, it is emotional, but it is not hopeless.  We plead on behalf of Christ’s blood, and we know that this foundation is sure.  This foundation is solid.  It will not give way.  Christ’s blood is of INFINITE VALUE.  There is not a scale in existence that would weigh your sin against Christ’s blood and find that your sin has more weight to it.

The catechism says ANY OF OUR TRANSGRESSIONS.  Not just the little ones, not just the ones committed before we knew Christ, but ANY and ALL of our transgressions.

          If you are a great sinner - Christ’s blood has atoned.

          If you are an old sinner - Christ’s blood has atoned.

           If you are a hard-hearted sinner or a backsliding sinner - Christ’s blood has atoned.

Because, and we must realize this - we are not praying for atonement.  This petition is not praying for atonement of any kind.  PLEASE GOD, LET MY SINS BE PAID FOR.  No!  Because that already happened!  2000 years ago on a mountain, where a man hung on a cross, between heaven and earth, abandoned by both.  Rejected by both.  CURSED by both.

When we pray this petition “forgive us our debts,” we are not asking for ATONEMENT, we are asking for FORGIVENESS BASED ON ATONEMENT!

Our sins are already atoned for - WE ARE SAINTS.

And yet we still sin - WE ARE SINNERS.

And this is where the promised Holy Spirit comes in to the equation.  Our sins were atoned for, once for all on the cross.  It is finished.

But the work of the Holy Spirit is ongoing.  There is more yet to do!  We are holy because of Christ, but we are not yet holy IN OURSELVES.  This is the ongoing process of sanctification.  Of being made holy. There is still, as the catechism says, “evil which still clings to us.”  And it is THIS that the Holy Spirit is slowly but surely purifying.

Purifying that old nature, pleasantly and yet powerfully bending that nature.  Rebellion and resistance are replaced by a sincere and spiritual obedience and joy!  But we’re not there yet.

And so, this is how we are saints and yet sinners.  But WHY?  WHY did God do this?  Scripture is so clear about the how…but why this way?

Why not have sanctification be an instantaneous thing like justification was?  Why go through this struggle with sin?

Though Scripture isn’t clear on this one, it is clear that God values humility.  It is made clear to us that God values suffering.  Suffering produces endurance, endurance character, and character hope.  The process of becoming more and more Christlike over time forces us to put our trust in God.  It forces us to depend on Him, and see the vast difference between human and divine.  It makes it that we can sympathize with and invite searchers and seekers to be part of us.  We are not different than they are.  We are not better than them.

It is as Martin Luther said, We are all mere beggars showing other beggars where to find bread.

          It is our sinful nature which keeps us both hardworking and humble.

          It is our sinful nature which continues to remind us, each and every day, that we NEED forgiveness, and that we HAVE atonement.

And so, though we may hate it at times, we can be thankful for God’s wisdom in forcing us to take the long route.  Nothing He does is by accident, nothing He does is anything less than perfect, and good, and wise.

Our God does nothing by half measures.  His grace is amazing, His mercy is full, and His atonement is limitless.  This is amazing news for us, struggling saints.  And yet, there is, in a sense, a catch.  The atonement is not limited, but our request is.  Our second point.

It would be so nice, it would be so easy if the fifth petition were merely “forgive us our debts.”  It would make our Christian walk a lot easier.  Christianity would be something that simply HAPPENS TO US.  The atonement happened, once for all, 2000 years before we were born.  The Holy Spirit is given to us to clean us up from the inside.  It’s like someone bought you a house that came with a maid.  The house is yours, no strings attached.  It is fully paid for, no mortgage, the insurance is paid by a third party each month, and there’s a maid right there to clean up whenever you make a mess.   You can treat the house nicely or poorly, IT DOESN’T MATTER.

But our salvation is not like this dream home.  There are serious responsibilities and even DEMANDS about being a Christian.

And that comes out in this petition.

Forgive us our debts…


Wow.  That…that kind of changes things.  That kind of changes EVERYTHING.

And, you see, it is our Saviour who added this very limiting clause to the prayer.  It wasn’t us, thinking that we have to earn our salvation, it was Him.  Because, whether we like it or not, whether we admit it or not…He knows us.  Rather well.  He knows that without this part of the petition, our sinful nature would take advantage of His limitless atonement.

And so we must pray this prayer completely and fully.

And there is perhaps no better passage in Scripture that illustrates both aspects of this petition than our reading from Matthew 18.

The story is a familiar one, but humor me as we go through it quickly together.

There once was a King who was settling his accounts, and he called in one servant who owed him 2.5 billion dollars.  The servant knew that it would be impossible to pay back, fell on his knees, begging and pleading for more time, promising a very hollow promise - I will pay back every cent!

The king took mercy on him and forgave his debt.

Immediately, this servant went out, and found another servant who owed him $17 000 and began choking him, demanding that he pay what he owed.  This servant fell on his knees, begging and pleading for more time, promising to pay back every cent.  But the first servant, the forgiven servant, refused to show mercy and had the second servant thrown in prison.

When the King heard this, he was furious, and ordered the first servant to be jailed until he pay back HIS debt.

This, Jesus says, represents the kingdom of heaven.  God is that king, and you are that servant.  How will you act?

Now, the obvious question comes up - is GOD’S FORGIVENESS based on OUR FORGIVENESS?  Does He make us earn His forgiveness?

Well, of course not!  His forgiveness is granted FIRST, and it is granted FREELY.  Always.  God always acts freely, and God always acts first.

We do not make ourselves WORTHY of forgiveness by forgiving one another.  God’s forgiveness is based always, only, and forever, on the atonement secured by Jesus Christ on the cross.

HOWEVER - and just like in the first point, we find a paradox here - even though God’s forgiveness is not BASED on our forgiveness of our neighbour, it is an all or nothing deal.

If you would ask: Will God not forgive my sins if I don’t forgive those who have sinned against me?  The answer is an emphatic YES!  This is EXACTLY what this petition means!

Years ago, I was in a young people’s Bible study in Winnipeg, and we were studying this very passage.  And I brought up this truth - the clear meaning of this is that, if we do not forgive each other, we are not forgiven!

And you should have seen the panic spread across the faces of all the young people in that room.  I will never forget it.  The meeting was quickly ended, there was a very short prayer, and immediately after, everyone turned to each other and declaring their forgiveness for each other.  It was as though they were afraid that hell itself would open up beneath their feet.  They forgave each other out of SHEER PANIC.

And that’s not what I want to leave you with this afternoon.  That sense of sheer panic.  That out of fear of the flames of hell grabbing you out of the pew, a pit opening up beneath you and dragging you down, that suddenly you stop putting off forgiving your neighbour.

Because the fear will fade, and grudges and bitterness will come up again.  It’s inevitable.  That’s what happens when we are motivated by fear.  Or by guilt.  Or by anything other than love and thankfulness.

Because we should not be motivated by the fear of being handed over to Satan the jailer for eternity.  SATAN should not be the reason that we forgive our brother and our sister.  The reason for our forgiveness must be GOD and not THE DEVIL!


Our forgiveness is the fruit that MUST BE PRODUCED to show that we ourselves are forgiven.  If we have truly tasted and seen that the Lord is good, if we have truly experienced that joy and freedom and hope that comes as a result of the limitless atonement - forgiveness for ALL OUR SINS - then forgiveness should be possible for us.

And I chose that word carefully - forgiveness should be POSSIBLE for us.  This doesn’t mean that it will be EASY.  For, remember, we are saint that still sin.  Our sinful nature is still alive and kicking, and one of the evidences of this is that we find it SO HARD to forgive.  We find it SO HARD that it might even seem impossible.  But do we have the DESIRE to forgive?  Or do we see bitterness and a grudge like a piece of choice food?  Do we delight in plans of revenge, are we eagerly awaiting the downfall of the one who hurt us?  Do we long to take his neck in our hands as the first servant did with the second?

If so, then maybe you have to look again at the cross.  Maybe then you have to taste the forgiveness of Christ once again.  Maybe you have to be reminded of your enormous debt that was taken onto the shoulders of your Saviour.

The first servant was never really sorry for his sins.  He never really loved the king for forgiving his debt.  He used that forgiveness, he used that freedom, as opportunity to act nothing like the king at all.  He used his freedom to act as a rebel against the cause of the kingdom.

Beloved, while our forgiveness from God does not depend on our forgiveness of others, the two are so tightly bonded together.

And the catechism speaks of this so beautifully: We also find this evidence of your grace in us that we are fully determined, wholeheartedly to forgive our neighbour.

Notice that the catechism does not speak of us wholeheartedly forgiving our neighbour.  Look again.  That’s not what it says.  It says that we are fully DETERMINED, wholeheartedly, to forgive our neighbour.

What’s the difference?

The difference is that we don’t have to achieve perfection here on earth in order to be forgiven.  If we could, there would be no need for it, would there?

But instead, what it means is that, whether it takes 10 minutes or 10 years, as Christians, we will use all of our strength to press on to the goal of forgiveness.  We will press on, though the going may be slow and it will be hard.  It means that we will ask God, everyday for the strength to forgive, and the forgiveness when we aren’t quite there yet.

And God’s forgiveness means that no sin or weakness, which remains in us, against our will, can prevent us from being received by God in grace.

It means that when we are asked the question, at the gates of heaven, “Friend or Foe” we can boldly answer - “In myself, I am foe.  But because of Him, because of what He has done once on the cross, and everyday afterwards in my heart, I am called friend.”  And the gate will be opened before us, and we will walk, in complete freedom, having been completely forgiven, into eternal blessedness.


* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Jeremy Segstro, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright, Rev. Jeremy Segstro

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