God’s word repeatedly instructs Christ-followers to forgive others. That alone is reason enough to make the discipline of forgiveness a priority in your life. But, were you aware that God expects you to forgive the same offenses over and over – without bounds? God expects you to forgive in the same way that he has forgiven you!
We are not only physical beings but spiritual beings as well. How we choose to handle sins committed against us directly affects our fellowship with God. There are also severe consequences resulting from refusing to forgive. Read on to learn what the Bible says about forgiveness.
Peter’s simple question: How often should I forgive?
Just prior to the apostle Peter asking Jesus a question about forgiveness, Jesus had been teaching in Matthew 18, verses 15-20. The topic: how to restore an erring brother or sister in Christ. The Lord emphasized the need for mercy and gentleness, as well as vigilance and prayer when seeking to correct and restore a fellow believer.
In that context, Peter asks Jesus in Matthew 18:21, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” By all accounts, Peter was being quite generous. Rabbinical teaching of the day was that three times to forgive the same person for a repeated sin was sufficient. Peter more than doubled that limit when he asked the question.
In fact, he might have intentionally used the number seven symbolically. In Biblical numerology, the number seven represents perfection or completeness. It is likely that Peter believed complete forgiveness had a set limit.
An unexpected answer: Forgive without limits
Jesus’ answer of seventy times seven (or seventy-seven depending on your translation), was meant to convey that forgiveness should have no bounds placed upon it. He certainly did not intend for Christians to keep meticulous records of offenses up to four hundred and ninety times, and then cut off their repeat offenders once that limit was reached.
No. Jesus was teaching Peter that forgiveness must be unlimited and complete. He then illustrates this point by telling the parable of the wicked servant in Matthew 18:
23 “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. 24 When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. 25 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. 26 So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.
In this parable, God the Father is portrayed as the king who forgives the equivalent of ten million dollars worth of debt. Despite the indebted servant’s assurances of repayment, it would have been impossible for him to repay the king that amount of money in his lifetime.
The point of the story is that the servant has been forgiven a debt that he could never repay on his own. His only hope of salvation was to have his debt be completely forgiven.
What Jesus is doing in this parable is painting a portrait of the Father’s everlasting grace and mercy toward us sinners. Specifically, he is alluding to his own death as the price paid to atone for the sins of mankind.
Refusing to forgive others is wickedness
However, Jesus didn’t stop the parable there. He continued…
28 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.’ 29 So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. 31 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. 32 Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt.
The servant who’d been forgiven millions of dollars of debt turned around and refused to forgive a couple hundred dollars of debt he was owed by someone else! Jesus described the unforgiving servant as wicked. Then he went on to describe the consequences of an unforgiving spirit.
The reciprocal nature of forgiveness
In the parable, once the king discovers that his fully forgiven servant has refused to forgive in turn, he has him imprisoned.
Jesus makes it crystal clear, that severe consequences would result for those refusing to forgive…
35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
The implication is that unforgiving servants will themselves not be forgiven. Instead of experiencing the freedom of forgiveness, they will be placed in jail or bound until they’ve paid their debt.
Lest we misunderstand or gloss over this point, it is repeated several times elsewhere in scripture:
- Luke 6:37 – Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven;
- Matthew 6:12 – and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
- Matthew 6:14-15 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
- Mark 11:25 – And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.”
- Matthew 5:7 – “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
- Matthew 7:2 – For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.
- Ephesians 4:32 – Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you
To be forgiven by God, we must forgive others.
Refusing to forgive others has severe consequences
The Bible makes it clear that if you do not forgive others of their trespasses against you, then you will not be forgiven your trespasses against God.
To understand the severe spiritual and physical implications of unforgiveness, read this blog post next. You can also read about one of my personal battles with unforgiveness, and the heavy emotional and psychological toll that attitude took on my mental health.
Now that you understand what a high value God places on forgiveness, take some time to self reflect right now. Search your own heart and ask yourself this question, “Am I harboring unforgiveness in my heart against anyone”?
If the answer is yes, check out this blog post on how to forgive from your heart.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: DALILA JONES STITZ
Founder and CEO, Health Insurrection LLC
Dalila is a native Houstonian and currently lives in Switzerand with her husband and two kids. She received her health coach training through the Institute of Integrative Nutrition and Hallelujah Acres and teaches in-home bible studies and online courses.