How often should we forgive?


Then Peter came to Him and said, “Lord, how often shall I forgive my brother who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.” Matthew 18:21-22 (Read 21-35)

How often should we forgive a brother or sister who sins against us? This is the question Peter asked of Jesus.

Note Jesus’ answer: “I do not say to you up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.” Jesus did not mean only 490 times, but all the time! Like our Lord, we are always to be “good and forgiving” (Psalm 86:5).

The parable of the unforgiving servant illustrates Jesus’ point to Peter. A certain servant owed the king such a great amount that he would never be able to work off and repay his debt. When the king justly would have sold him and all that he had to recover at least a part of this debt, the servant pleaded for mercy. The king was moved to compassion and forgave the entire debt.

We, like the first servant in this parable, owe to God a greater debt than we can ever repay. Our sins against the LORD God are so great that there is no hope of us ever repaying or making amends for our sins — even thinking that we could do so is foolishness. God’s law demands that we be cast into hell’s eternal prison and suffer there forever the just penalty for our sins. Cf. Rom. 3:9ff.; 6:23a.

Indeed, there is nothing we can do but plead for mercy!

And God, like the king in Jesus’ parable, is merciful. He sent His only-begotten Son into the world to live a righteous and holy life in our stead and then pay in full the debt of our sins and the sins of all by suffering our just punishment as He was crucified and died upon the cross. God accepted His atoning sacrifice and raised Him up and, in the Gospel, God offers to us in Christ mercy instead of judgment, forgiveness instead of eternal damnation (cf. 1 Cor. 15:3-4; Rom. 3:21ff.; 5:6ff.).

When we look to God in faith, seeking His mercy in Christ Jesus and for the sake of Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the cross, God graciously forgives our entire debt of sin. “As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:12).

But then there is the second part of Jesus’ parable. This same servant went out and found a fellow servant who owed him only a very small and insignificant amount in comparison with the huge debt which had been forgiven him. Rather than showing mercy to this servant as he had been shown mercy by his lord, he refused to forgive this small debt and “threw him in prison until he should pay the debt.”

When the king saw that his compassion and forgiveness had no effect on this unforgiving servant, he was angry and “delivered him to the jailers until he should pay all his debt.”

In our earthly lives, others sin against us many times; but this debt of sin, though it may seem great to us, is small and insignificant in comparison with the great debt of sin that the LORD God has forgiven us for Jesus’ sake. As a fruit of our faith, and as a result of God’s great mercy to us in Christ Jesus, we ought also to forgive those who sin against us, even “up to seventy times seven” (cf. Eph. 4:32).

It is as Jesus said in His parable: If we refuse to forgive from our hearts those who sin against us, neither will our heavenly Father forgive us; instead, He will cast us into the fires of hell to pay in full the punishment due unto us! Cf. Matt. 6:12,14-15.

Forgive our sins, Lord, we implore, remove from us their burden sore, as we their trespasses forgive who by offenses us do grieve. Thus let us dwell in charity and serve our brother willingly. Amen. — “Our Father, Thou in Heaven Above,” Martin Luther, The Lutheran Hymnal, Hymn 458, v. 6

[Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, Modern English Version. Copyright © 2014 by Military Bible Association. Published and distributed by Charisma House.]

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