Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 08/06/1995
Luke 17:1 And he said unto his disciples, “It is inevitable that stumbling blocks should come, but woe to him through whom they come! 2 It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to stumble. 3 Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. 4 And if he sins against you seven times a day and returns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.” 5 And the apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 6 And the Lord said, “If you had faith like a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and be planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. 7 But which of you, having a slave plowing or tending sheep, will say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come, immediately sit down and eat’? 8 But will he not say to him, ‘Prepare something for me to eat, and properly clothe yourself and serve me until I have eaten and drunk, and afterward you will eat and drink’? 9 He does not thank the slave because he did the things which were commanded, does he? 10 So you too, when you do all the things which are commanded you, say, ‘We are unworthy slaves; we have only done that which we ought to have done.’”
Most scholars have assumed that this passage is just a collection of miscellaneous sayings that Luke wanted to get in, so he lumped them together here. I think there is a train of thought discernible nonetheless, and that it is the key to understanding each part. The topic is offenses. We have first offenses against others (vss. 1-2, with the warning not to be a stumbling block). Then we have offenses against oneself (vss. 3-4, with the command to forgive them). The disciples feel that they do not have sufficient faith to produce such costly forgiveness, so they ask for it to be increased in vs. 5. The Lord responds to this request with the Parable of the Mulberry Tree in vs. 6. The point of it is not working “miracles.” The casting of the tree into the ocean is symbolic of any difficult task, and the one in focus here is forgiveness. So the point is, “Don’t worry about how much faith you have; quantifying your faith is merely a distraction. Just use what little you do have, and obey (i.e., forgive)!” Then the Parable of the Slave warns them that, when they have forgiven one another, they must not think of themselves as super-spiritual. They have only done what they are supposed to do.
Throughout this discussion, seven practical principles for the Christian life emerge. Let’s look at them in order.
The first principle is the reality principle: “It is inevitable that stumbling blocks should come.” The Christian story begins with creation and moves immediately to the Fall of the human race and the Curse it brought on all of creation. The world we live in is abnormal. “The time is out of joint,“ says Hamlet. “O cursed spite / That ever I was born to set it right.” But the time is always out of joint, and it will continue to be until Christ returns. Stumbling blocks are an inevitable and unavoidable part of time’s current way of flowing. And therefore there is no point in cursing about it. Christians do not need to curse because they are under no pressure to pretend that everything is OK. They should not be a people subject to disillusionment. They should be people who know better than that.
I suppose some of the people most in danger of disillusionment are the followers of what is falsely called “Christian Science.” For they believe that evil is not real. It is an illusion, an “error of the mortal mind.” The story is told of a man who used to meet his Christian Scientist friend every morning when they went out to check their mail. What’s the matter?” his friend asked him one morning.” “It’s my wife. She’s been sick for a long time and we can’t figure out what’s wrong with her.” “Oh, she’s not really sick,” the Christian Scientist responded. “Sickness isn’t real. It’s just that she thinks she’s sick. It’s an error of the mortal mind.” The next day the fellow looked even more depressed. “What is it?” his friend asked. “It’s my wife again. She’s been diagnosed with cancer.” “But cancer doesn’t really exist,” the Christian Scientist tried to comfort him. “She only thinks she has cancer. It’s an error of the mortal mind.” The third day was still worse. “Now they say that the cancer is inoperable.” “Operable, schmoperable,” the Christian Scientist responded. “She just needs to get victory over these negative thoughts. Cancer doesn’t really exist. She only thinks she has it. It’s an error of the mortal mind, I’m telling you.” Finally the fourth day came. “Boy, you look terrible. What is it now?” “Well, it’s my wife again. Now she thinks she’s dead.”
The informed Christian is a person set free from the terrible burden of having to pretend that because God’s in his Heaven, all’s right with the world—at least, yet! We know that we live in a fallen world—and we know that God has not exempted us from sharing in the sorrow and frustrations that flow from that fact. Peter tells us in 1 Peter 2:21 that “You have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in his steps.” Like our Master, we are to suffer in and for a dying world. Our suffering is not redemptive in the same sense as his, but we point to his by following his example of identifying with the sufferings of a fallen world. And that is why we can face cancer, theft, tragedy, even betrayal without disillusionment and therefore without bitterness. We live in this fallen world by the hope of redemption, not by the folly of an earthly utopia. And that is surely one of the greatest gifts our Lord has given us.
The second principle is the principle of responsibility (1b-2): “It is inevitable that stumbling blocks should come, but woe to him through whom they come!” The responsibility principle flows from the reality principle: in the real world, actions have consequences. I see a constant stream of freshmen who were not held responsible or accountable ever before in their lives. They cruised through high school making B’s while coming out functionally illiterate. Then there is a huge culture shock when they get to college or university and find out that we think they are still responsible for knowing (and practicing) all the things they never learned in the first place! Welcome to the real world.
It is inevitable that stumbling blocks are going to come, but you don’t have to be the source of them. If you choose to be, then it would have been better to have had a millstone tied around your neck and be thrown into the sea. God holds us responsible for out participation in the ongoing rebellion against him. That is a sobering reality indeed, but it carries hope with it, for it means that our beliefs, our choices, and our actions matter. They have meaning. If we were not held responsible, they would have none. Get used to the burden and the blessing of significance! Which it is depends on whom you follow: Christ or your own lusts.
The principle of rebuke is next: “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.” This flows from the principle of responsibility. Your fellow believer is your brother or sister in Christ. Therefore, Christians are responsible to and for one another in the church. We cannot just let sin pass unremarked and undealt with, for this hurts not only the sinner and the victim but also their relationship and the whole body of Christ. This is not about being a busybody. The principle of rebuke comes into play when your brother sins, not just when you happen find him annoying. And you go to him to restore his relationship with Christ and with yourself; you do not go to anyone else about it (unless he is stubborn in unrepentance, but that comes later). You go to him in love, not self righteous condemnation, and you do it privately (Mat. 18:15). Why? Because love between bothers and sisters in Christ is so important that nothing can be allowed to compromise or interrupt it. Why? Because, as the Lord explains in John 17:21, 23, it is by whether we love one another or not that the world will judge whether Christ has come in the flesh. The Gospel will be only as believable to a lost world as we are, and we will be only as believable as our love is. Therefore, we cannot let real sin pass. If your brother sins, rebuke him.
If your brother sins, rebuke him. And if he repents, forgive him. The principle of repentance gives us the proper response to rebuke by people who are living by the principles of reality and responsibility. The Greek word metanoia, repentance, means a change of mind leading to a change in behavior. In the context of sin against another person, that behavior includes restitution. Repentance is a commitment, with God’s help, to forsake the sin and to make it right with those the sin has hurt. Repentance is a prerequisite to forgiveness: “If he repents,” we are to forgive him. I should have a forgiving attitude toward the unrepentant. I should in other words earnestly desire the opportunity to forgive him and be prepared to do so, not holding any grudge against him so that nothing puts him off from acknowledging his sin and asking for forgiveness. But the transaction of forgiveness can only be complete when there is repentance on the part of the offender. God himself does not forgive the unrepentant! To do so would be to transgress his own principles of reality and responsibility. That is part of the reason why forgiveness is so costly that it demanded the Cross. God offers the forgiveness purchased there as a free gift to any one who believes. But true faith includes repentance. Repentance does not atone for sin—only the blood of Christ can do that. But repentance simply accepts forgiveness and the atonement it is based on with a sincere heart. To say that one accepts forgiveness while fully intending to continue the very sin for which one has asked it is simply to speak nonsense. That is not faith but hypocrisy, and God knows the difference! We often do not, which is why we must give the benefit of the doubt to those who repent seven times in one day. Nevertheless, the principle remains valid that repentance is the prerequisite for forgiveness. Forgiveness cannot be perfect and complete where it does not find repentance.
The principle of repentance applies mainly to the offender, the one asking for forgiveness. The principle of restoration applies mainly to the offended, the one granting forgiveness. Restoration is the ultimate goal of rebuke. Let us be very plain about this. Forgiveness of the repentant is always mandatory for followers of Christ. Always. This is true for several reasons. It is true because of how important love between Christian brothers and sisters is; the very credibility of the Gospel depends on it. And it is true because Christ has forgiven us. Repentance is a commitment not to repeat the offense. The offender may fail in that commitment, but he must at least intend it. Forgiveness is a commitment never to bring the offense up again. When repentance and forgiveness are a mutual commitment between two people, then and only then is the relationship fully restored. This restoration is always the ultimate goal. How often we settle for avoiding confrontation instead while the witness of the whole Body suffers! Let us repent of our own disobedience in this area so that God can forgive us and we can then go on truly to forgive and restore others.
The sixth of our principles is the principle of reliance, that is, reliance on Christ by grace through faith. “And the apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’ And the Lord said, ‘If you had faith like a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and be planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.’” When the disciples realize what the Lord is asking of them, they say in effect, “Lord, we need help!” A life of consistent repentance toward those we have wronged and forgiveness toward those who have wronged us is not something that comes natural to us. In fact, it cuts right across the grain of the biggest impediment to spiritual progress, our sinful pride. The disciples rightly know that they are not capable of these things. So they cry out for help, and the Lord responds with the Parable of the Mulberry Tree.
The mulberry tree apparently had deep roots, and it was very hard to get a fully grown one out of the ground. And so casting a mulberry tree into the sea had become a proverb for doing the impossible. Therefore, the Lord is saying, in effect, “You are right. You can’t live this way—except through faith. Faith is a radical reliance on God to do the impossible in and through you. But the problem is not the size or amount of your faith. It is not the power of the faith in the individual, but the power of the God in whom he puts his faith, that matters. If you have any faith at all, just exercise it, just trust in the Father completely, and this impossible thing will be done. Don’t worry about the size of your faith, just use the mustard see you’ve got, and God will work this miracle in you.” And the miracle, the impossible thing, being discussed, is obviously forgiveness, not tree-tossing or any other publicly impressive act we might be dreaming up. Oh, if only we would read the Scriptures in context, they would make so much more sense—and call us to account more effectively, too!
Well, when you have learned to trust in God’s grace and he has enabled you truly to repent and forgive your brother, do not think that you are anything special. A slave doesn’t expect any reward just for doing what he’s told, what he’s supposed to do. This parable is not here to tell us that God is stingy and is going to treat us like the slave in the example. It is here to remind us that the Christian life is not about merit but about grace. When you have done everything, you have not earned any reward. The mightiest saints of history—Paul himself, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Wesley—did not deserve any reward. It is simply not possible for us who have been redeemed by the infinitely precious blood of Christ to give more than what we owe so that God owes us anything back. We must not think we deserve to be treated any differently from the slave in the parable. But that is so that we will be able fully to appreciate the indescribable grace we are going to receive anyway. For we have already seen in Luke 12:36-7 that Christ is going to treat his faithful servants precisely as no human master ever did: “Blessed are those slaves whom the master shall find on the alert when he comes. Truly I say to you that he will gird himself to serve and have them recline at table and will come up and wait on them.” The Prodigal Son gets sandals on his feet and the best robe on his back and a ring on his finger and a fatted calf on his plate. And this our Lord will do for those who have only done what they ought to have done and hence are not worthy of any special treatment! The reward we could not have earned by merit will be richly bestowed by grace. Oh, the matchless wonder of the riches of the glory of his grace! Praise him!
These seven principles are essential to a faithful Christian life: the principles of reality, responsibility, rebuke, repentance, restoration, reliance and reward. And they lead us to a place that is blessed indeed. It is the place where we combine the humility of verse 10, the humility of unworthy servants who have only done their duty, with awed praise for undeserved grace. Don’t you see how this necessitates the principle of restoration? Who are we, who do we think we are, when we have received such grace, not to forgive? And are you not impelled to worship and praise the God of such grace, who delights to honor unworthy servants like ourselves? I certainly am.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams