How Often Should We Forgive?


Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times? Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven. Matthew 18:21-22 (Read Matt. 18:21-35)

How often should we forgive a brother or sister who sins against us? This is the question Peter asked of Jesus after Jesus instructed His disciples in regard to binding or not forgiving the sins of impenitent sinners and loosing or forgiving the sins of those who repent.

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

The parable of the unforgiving servant which follows 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. And 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, therefore, 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 to pay in full the debt of our sins and the sins of all by suffering our just punishment as He was crucified and died on the cross. God accepted Christ’s atoning sacrifice and raised Him up and, in the Gospel, God offers to us through faith 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 hath 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 “cast him into prison, till 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 tormentors, till he should pay all that was due unto him.”

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.”

In fact, the Bible urges us to “be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you” (Eph. 4:32).

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 for our sins (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 is quoted from the King James Version of the Bible.]

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