I was reading Matthew 18, the parable of the unforgiving servant. I was really struck by this:
“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.” (Matthew 18:22-27)
I don’t know why I’ve never thought about it before, but today I recognized what Jesus was saying.
A talent was equal to about 20 years’ wages for a laborer. The servant in the parable owed a sum equal to 200,000 years’ worth of labor. Let’s put that into 2006 dollars. If a years’ salary was $30,000, the servant owed his master $6 billion!
Jesus’ point in using such a huge sum in the parable was to show us how utterly impossible it is for us to pay our enormous sin debt. Though the servant implored his master to be patient until the servant could pay up, the master knew better. Where would a servant ever get that kind of money? The master had pity on the servant and graciously cancelled his debt.
This all got me to thinking about Mormonism and the way Latter-day Saints understand their sin and God’s grace. I can’t count the times I’ve read and been told by Mormons, “We don’t believe in salvation by works alone. We believe that good works are necessary, but not enough. We do all we can, but still fall short. That’s when God’s grace kicks in. Jesus makes up the difference.”
LDS Apostle Dallin Oaks said it this way: “When we have done all that we are able, we can rely on God’s promised mercy…He is our Savior, and when we have done all that we can, He will make up the difference…” (October 1993 General Conference, quoted in Church News, 1 April 2000, page 14)
A friend of mine uses a boat analogy when talking with Mormons about salvation. An individual’s good works are the planks of wood that make up the hull of the boat (salvation). Latter-day Saints believe the grace of God given through Christ is the pitch that fills in the cracks between the planks, making the boat safe and seaworthy. But there’s a problem here.
Take a look at how God describes natural man in Romans 1:
“They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.” (Romans 1:29-31)
You see, the sin debt for each of us is enormous! Six-billion dollars. Two-hundred-thousand years’ worth of labor.
Some might say, “Well, we have eternity to work it off. We can do it if we just have enough time.” Sorry, folks. The master in Jesus’ parable is already entitled to all the labor his servant can provide. The debt owed is above and beyond normal labor. It is impossible to pay.
And what makes us think that anything we do would be pleasing and acceptable to God anyway? Look again at the qualities He finds in us! How can our sin-tainted good works be used to build a sound boat? In my friend’s analogy the truth is that the planks of the boat are all rotten. There’s nothing there firm enough to be patched by God’s grace. Instead of floating on the water this boat sinks like a stone—and takes anyone relying on it to the bottom of the sea.
No, there’s nothing we can contribute to the building of our boat. Like the servant in Jesus’ parable, our only hope is grace and mercy. God must provide both the planks and the pitch. And He does. Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift!