In the parable of the lost son, the 'prodigal' declares 'I have sinned against heaven and against you'. There is a recognition that sin always has an impact against God. Person A (lets call him Fred) sins against person B (Jane). Specifically, lets say that Fred publicly called Jane 'stupid'- what debt is owed to Jane?

The Debt Against The Person

* She has been robbed of value, she is owed a restoring of value
* The sin was in public, she is owed a public restoration

But because God loves Jane as well as Fred, anything that causes hurt to Jane is going to cause hurt to the God who loves her and hates to see her hurt. More, God would love to intervene to prevent the hurt, but he has established the universe in such a way that he cannot do so without violating human choice - the precursor to our ability to love and the reason for which we were created. In fact, God is hurt in the following ways:

The Father

* Because of the pain caused to a loved one
* As a result of powerlessness of an almighty God unable to intervene and protect
* Knowing how his inaction might be misconstrued

The Son

Jesus values Jane (and Fred of course) so highly that he freely gives his life for them, thus declaring them to be equal. Fred has devalued Jane - put her beneath him, in effect declaring himself a better judge of value than God. Worse it says that Jesus over-paid for Jane, it devalues the work of the cross on her behalf.

God's desire is to shower his love on humanity. To do this he needs to be known, needs to be trusted - not for his sake or benefit, but for ours. Both the sin against the Father and The Son operate against this:That against the Father might lead Jane and those who love her to question God's love or power - he didn't intervene. That against the Son is in effect Fred saying 'I don't trust God's judgment - he distrusts God's character, making it easier for others to do the same.

So although there are specific debts owed to God as a result of any sin, inevitably they always lead to this more general, catastrophic consequence. As Jesus put it 'you make others twice as fit for hell as you are yourselves. Part of our indebtedness to God is on behalf of those who do not see God's character revealed in us, who are deceived as to God's character as a result of our sin. Who then don't experience the love for which God created us. Our sin thwarts the very purpose of God, with potentially eternal consequences.

Fred then is in debt to Jane and to God.


Confession is the process of seeing things from God's perspective. It is a process both Jane and Fred need to complete. Fred needs to see as above, the true effects of his sin, the true debt that he owes. But, if forgiveness is to be possible between Jane and Fred, Jane also needs to confess. She needs to agree with God;

* The full debt that is owed her
* That through the cross, Christ has purchased the right to that debt

Acknowledging the Debt

Very often, Christians equate forgiveness with a misguided attempt to minimise or discount the debt owed. 'It doesn't matter', 'It's alright', 'I understand'. Or there is an attempt to excuse, both for our sake (it doesn't hurt as much if they didn't really mean it or were reacting out of their own hurt rather than personally). 'They had a difficult life', 'They were in pain or under stress'. This is construed as loving and therefore godly, but such attempts make us their judge - we are deciding what price they should pay, we put ourselves in the position that only God can fulfil.

Confession rather than judgment allows us to see the debt from God's perspective and allows us to be fully honest about how hurt we are. If we minimise the crime against us by excusing it, we are left with feelings commensurate with the full 'crime' but now feel guilty because the 'crime' has been minimised to be less than our feelings warrant!

Moreover, if forgiveness is to be effective at cancelling the debt, we must acknowledge first what the full debt is. Otherwise all we cancel is the part of the debt that we have recognised. The story of the servant who owed his master an unpayable debt is illustrative of this process. It is clear to the master that the debt is too big to be paid and out of mercy he is willing to cancel the whole amount. But the servant does not believe it has been cancelled and so goes out and demands payment in order that he can begin paying back what he owes. He refuses either to believe the generosity of the master or to to accept it. He either distrusts His character or in pride refuses what that character makes possible. These are the same elements we saw above - sin creates doubt about God's character and / or acts in pride against that character.

The key first step in forgiveness then is confession - an acknowledgement of the full debt owed. This may take some time. We need to be honest about the full scope, the full hurt. We need to list in detail what we are owed. It may be a public apology, it may include practical restitution. It will include the right to be heard, the right to express the anger or pain that we feel. It may end up as quite a long list. Generally, the size of the debt will seem much bigger than we think it should be. But this is not the time to begin crossing things off or pretending they are not there - it is vital the full debt is accounted for.

Christ Has Purchased The Right To Our Debt

Through his incarnational life, Jesus identified with humanity. Through the cross this identification is fulfilled. Innocent, he pays for our indebtedness with his own life. He purchases the right to the debts owed to us.In forgiving others, we complete the transaction. We release the debt to the one who has paid for it.


Repentance is the second stage in the process. This means to change our mind. Specifically we change our mind about the size of the debt - it isn't minimal, it isn't excused, it is real and it hurts! The power and strength of our feelings, our desire for vengeance, the pain of the hurt become visible but more importantly they are validated. They are a reasonable response, given who we are, to the sin against us.

Secondly we change our mind as to who has the right to respond to this debt. As we recognise the price Jesus has paid, we can release to him the full amount owed to us. Not a minimised, discounted version that leaves us with emotions and pain that has nowhere to go and no way to be healed, but the full amount that confession has unveiled.

Releasing the Debt

Now Jane can release the full debt to Jesus. As she does this she understands that God will judge rightly, that if Fred fails to respond appropriately, he will be called to account before the one who now owns the debt. That she will be publicly vindicated (a banquet in front of my enemies - ps 23). She can know and experience the warmth, delight and healing of the Father's embrace. She can experience the inexplicable peace that Jesus offers. She can know again the freedom, the liberty that comes from the indebtedness being gone. Further, this process of forgiveness cancels the spiritual power held over between them.


Now, if Fred comes to Jane with restitution and apology, she can receive it not as her right, but humbly, lovingly, knowing it brings healing to him. But if he doesn't, it no longer affects her healing. She has already had validated the depth of her pain, already had the opportunity to hand over what is owed to the only one who has the right to it. It reverses the impact of sin - she is trusting in God's character - vengeance is mine says the Lord, I will repay. The debt was against us, Jesus paid for the right to it. Forgiveness validates Jesus claim to the debt, he will execute justice and we will be repaid. The years that locusts ate will be restored. We no longer need to carry the burden.


Of course at times these are excruciating choices to make. Sometimes the sin against us is so wounding that actually the pain becomes our identity. The search for vengeance, for vindication becomes the purpose of our life. But the process is the same, the choice the same; that which brings life and liberty or that which brings bitterness and death.

If Jane chooses not to forgive, Jesus paid to own a debt that he is not able to receive. Jane in effect decides that she is in a better position to judge, to execute justice - the same sin against God as Fred originally committed - she retains something for which Jesus has paid, tantamount to theft. Further, she effectively doubts God's character 'will not the judge of all the earth do right?'. These hurt God just as much as the original sin did. The desperate frustration that Jesus felt over Jerusalem is now felt for Jane 'Oh, Jerusalem, Jerusalem - how often I have longed to gather you under my wings... but you would not let me'

Now, not only does Jane carry the burden and pain of Fred's sin unecessarily, but she also walks in sin against God too. She can only be forgiven that sin if she confesses and repents of it as above - which of course would result in her forgiving Fred. In short, God's ability to forgive her the sin of unforgiveness is contingent on her forgiving! As Jesus taught us 'forgive us our debts as we forgive those who sin against us'


If Fred chooses not to confess or repent he remains in debt - either to both Jane and God or to God alone (if Jane has forgiven). The amount of the debt remains the same in either case, the question is only one of who is owed. If Jane does not forgive, she carries that burden and it is never resolved, if she does the full weight of the debt is felt by God. 'It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God'

The opposite of forgiveness is vengeance.

The Cross and Debt
On the cross Jesus purchases the right to all human debt. Forgivenss is the mechanism by which that debt is formally given over to the one who has paid for it. But more, Jesus represents humanity and all sin is both against individuals and heaven. The debt owed by humanity to the Father alos needs paying. Either by individuals (who will not be able to pay) or by their representative. Jesus prays 'Father forgive them, for they know not what they do'. He invites the Father to forgive the debt, to release it to him. On the cross Jesus receives the all the hurt, the righteous anger, the frustration that the Father has experienced for every sin. Now Jesus is owed for all the sin against both God and People. Jesus therefore has the absolute right to accuse, to condemn. No one else has the right, he has bought the complete rights to all the hurt and suffering in the universe. Yet with that in mind he says 'who is it that condemns you? Neither do I'. Or as Paul would put it 'Who then will condemn us? No one—for Christ Jesus died for us and was raised to life for us, and he is sitting in the place of honor at God’s right hand, pleading for us.'

Washing Feet

Coming to faith releases us from the debt we had accumulated in the past - both against people and against God. Baptism is symbolic of this reality. Now that debt has been paid, all we need as Jesus describes it is for the dirt of the day to be washed away. We confess, repent, forgive. We come in humility considering others better than ourselves as Jesus modelled as he washed the disciples feet from the dust of the day.

Sin Against The Holy Spirit

But what if we refuse to? What if, in the full knowledge of all that Jesus has done, all that the Father has endured, we choose not to confess, repent or forgive? There is then no mechanism for the debt to be paid. We have chosen to retain the debt for ourself. This grieves the Holy Spirit who lives within us and who tries to point us to the truth about God. By refusing this we effectively accuse the Spirit of lying, we set ourselves as judges of God's character and declare him to be other than that which he has said. It is the original sin again, but this time with no remedy. It is unforgivable because we choose it to be by retaining the debt, by rejecting the price that has been paid for it.
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