Matthew 6:12, 14-15
What makes a congregation a church? How can you distinguish a true church from a false one? What does it take for a local church to be the church of Jesus Christ? The Belgic Confession of 1561 is one of the best answers to that question. It outlines three distinguishing marks by which the true church is known.
- The faithful proclamation of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ.
- The faithful administration of the baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
- The faithful exercise of church discipline.
All too often, we judge churches on the basis of size, prominence, and resources. But that is just another testament to the truth of Isaiah 55:8, which states God’s thoughts and ways are not like our thoughts and ways. God does not judge a church by how much money it has, how beautiful its facilities are, or how many people may attend. God looks for fidelity of doctrine, purity of life, and unity of fellowship. These are the marks of a true church.
I want to focus your attention on what Al Mohler has called “the missing mark”: church discipline. What is church discipline? It is the spiritual process of confrontation, rebuke, confession, forgiveness, and restoration. Most simply, church discipline is about being forgiven and being forgiving. We cannot be the church of Jesus Christ and erase this mark. Jesus has given us a great strategy for making sure the mark of church discipline is never missing. In the model prayer, Jesus teaches us to pray: “and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”
The first word of this petition is the conjunction “and,” which connects St. Matthew, verse 11 to verse 12. In verse 11, Jesus teaches us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Then Jesus connects the request for bread to the request for forgiveness. How do the two go together? I think the connection is this: they are both fundamental needs of human existence. Forgiveness is to the soul what food is to the body. I submit to you that most of the major spiritual problems we have are somehow connected to the fundamental issue of forgiveness. Think about it. When we have a problem properly relating to God, others, or life itself, it is usually because of one of two reasons:
- Guilt – the expression of our need to receive forgiveness.
- Bitterness – the expression of our need to extend forgiveness.
Forgiveness is to the soul what bread is to the body. Our bodies starve when we do not eat, just as our souls starve when we do not receive and extend forgiveness. Our daily bread does nothing but feed us as lambs for the slaughter if our sins are not pardoned. The Greek word translated “forgive” (aphiemi) simply means to send away. It was used to refer to cancelling a debt, discharging an arrow, dismissing a criminal proceeding, divorcing a woman, ending a meeting, or loosing a ship into the sea. This is what forgiveness does. It sends away guilt and bitterness. Christianity is not just about what will come into your life if you follow Jesus, it is also about what is sent away from your life if you follow Jesus Christ. It is about the constant process of sending away guilt and bitterness. We are most like beasts when we kill…We are most like men when we judge…We are most like God when we forgive. For citizens of the kingdom of heaven, forgiveness is both essential and beneficial. We pray for daily forgiveness, just like we pray for daily bread. Christians approach God desiring to be reconciled to God and others. We pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we have forgiven our debtors.”
The point of this petition is illustrated in the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant recorded in Matthew 18:23-35. As a certain king reviewed his servants’ stewardship, a servant was brought before him who owed him millions of dollars. So the king ordered the man – along with his wife, children, and possessions, to be auctioned off at the slave market. The poor wretch threw himself at the king’s feet and begged for mercy. And the king forgave him and released him from the debt. But no sooner than he was out of the room, he came upon a fellow servant that owed him ten dollars. He grabbed him by the throat and demanded, “Pay up now, you bum.” This fellow servant begged for mercy, but it was not granted. He had to be put in jail until the debt was paid. When the other servants saw this, they were outraged and reported it to the king. The king summoned the man and said, “You evil slob. I forgave you your entire debt when you begged me for mercy. Shouldn’t you be compelled to be merciful to your fellow servant who asked for mercy?” The king then put that servant in jail to be tortured until he could pack back the debt he owed. Notice the three key facts of this story.
- The servant had a debt to the king that he could not ever repay.
- The servant had his debt freely and graciously forgiven by the king.
- The servant had to learn – the hard way – that he forgiveness you receive is tied to the forgiveness you extend.
Evangelist Corey Hendricks