Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times. “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” (Matthew 18:21–35)
“We are beggars: that’s the truth”.
If you want to encounter a theologian who said precisely what he was thinking at any given moment, you could do no better that Martin Luther (1483-1546). Here is a man who took on the papacy and translated the Bible into German whilst on the run. Read through his fifty-five volumes of works and you find a man of conviction. Read the transcriptions of the comments he made to his students whilst at dinner and you will find a man who was certainly not afraid to make jokes which modern lecturers would not get away with! Calvin may have been the better theologian, but Luther is more fun.
He is also the man who rediscovered the emphasis on grace in the Bible. The idea that our salvation relies on God’s love, and is a work of God’s love. God graciously forgives those who turn to him, and acknowledge they have fallen short. We cannot earn God’s favour, but he can gift it to us. Luther, a man all too aware of his shortcomings, was transformed by this understanding. It wasn't up to him, after all. It is up to Jesus!
As he lay dying, his final words reflected on this truth which had lay at the heart of the entire Reformation project: “we are beggars: that’s the truth”.
Now, it is here that some will object. But, they might say, we shouldn’t be so down on ourselves. To call yourself a beggar is, well, not exactly a boost to self-esteem. We should be about positivity, about boosting up not being negative. Well, hold on to that thought for a moment whilst we consider the person who is probably the most famous writer on grace: John Newton.
Newton, like his father, was a sailor. First going to sea aged only eleven he managed to find a job in a merchant’s office only to be dismissed due to his “unsettled behaviour and impatience of restraint”. He was press-ganged into the Navy, but deserted (earning him a flogging) and ended up working for a slave-trader. Of this time of his life, Newton wrote: “I sinned with a high hand,” he later wrote, “and I made it my study to tempt and seduce others”.
In the end he became the captain of a slave ship, only to be converted to Christianity during a storm. This was a complete turn-around, a new birth, and he ended up not only as an Anglican clergyman, but also a campaigner for the abolition of slavery. Looking back on his life, he wrote:
If the question is concerning the patience of God, the wonderful interposition of His providence in favour of an unworthy sinner, the power of His grace in softening the hardest heart, and the riches of His mercy in pardoning the most enormous and aggravated transgressions; in these respects, I know no case more extraordinary than my own.
As he penned ‘Amazing Grace’ he really did know that he was ‘the wretch’ who was saved.
Now, back to the thought you are holding. The idea that we should look to boost our self-esteem, and never look down. The idea that the key to happiness is to boost the ego. The idea that this talk of wretches and beggars in unhealthy.
The passage from Matthew’s gospel challenges this thinking. Peter wonders how often he should forgive, and Jesus responds with a story about being let off debts. The point is clear: we are people who have been forgiven much by God, and so we should extend that forgiveness to others. It is because we understand ourselves to be in need (and receipt) of forgiveness, that we can look with others with eyes of mercy. Receiving grace makes people gracious.
Here’s the thing. If someone gives me something I think I deserve that I am not really that thankful. Why should I be? I deserved it! On the other hand, if I open a present and find in it something I really don’t deserve that I am overwhelmed. Newton and Luther were overcome by the grace of God precisely because they did not think they deserved it. They knew that, compared to the holiness of God, they were nothing. Even though one was a monk and the other captained a slave-ship they both had the same view of themselves: against the bright flame of the holiness of God they we insignificant.
Far from being an unhealthy attitude, to realise our need of God’s gracious forgiveness is a liberating thing. No need to strive towards making a large enough pile of good deeds, rather allow Christ to stand in your place. Embrace the great gift that God gives, and allow it to give you joy. Beware of thinking that you are worth it!
“We are beggars: that’s the truth”. What a wonderful truth!