How many times should we forgive a fellow Christian who sins against us? This question comes to our mind, as it did to Peter’s lips one day while Jesus was talking to His disciples about church life, salvation, discipline, and repentance (Matt. 18:1–35).
Peter’s suggestion of seven times seems quite generous (v. 21). But Jesus responds to him by saying not seven times, but “seventy times seven” (v. 22). Jesus uses this way of speaking to say that our forgiveness of a repenting brother or sister cannot be bounded, much like the forgiveness that God grants to sinners. In other words, we should lose count when forgiving others.
The story Jesus told is gripping. A wealthy king freely forgives a servant who owes him an exorbitant amount. Ten thousand talents—to the original hearers, this would have sounded like several billion dollars to us today. Forgiven, the servant walks through the palace gates, runs into a man who owes him a comparatively meager amount (a hundred denarii, equivalent to a few thousand dollars). Grabbing the man by the throat, he is ready to resort to physical violence, and over the pleas of the man for mercy, the “forgiven” servant throws him into debtor’s prison. The king is furious when he hears of this man’s gross inconsistency. We all should be, and we should know that this parable judges us if we harbor an unforgiving spirit (v. 35).
Receiving forgiveness inwardly constrains us to forgive.
Christ is not saying that we are forgiven based on merits we get from forgiving others. Nor is He saying that it is possible that people can lose their salvation once they have been truly forgiven. Christ does not get into an in-depth discussion of soteriology at this point. He does not mention imputation, righteousness, or faith, as the Apostle Paul does in Romans 3–5. Christ is speaking here not of the way of salvation but rather of the result of salvation.
Moreover, within the larger context of Matthew 18, Jesus is telling His disciples how to confront, discipline, and receive back offending brothers and sisters. Receiving forgiveness inwardly constrains us to forgive. When David received mercy from God, he in turn looked for someone to whom he could show the “mercy of God” (2 Sam. 9:3, KJV). Mercy makes us channels of mercy.
When Christ spoke this parable, He was on His way to the cross. It’s only because of His one sacrifice on the cross that there can be forgiveness for any sinner. And from the crucified Savior flows the power to manifest this forgiveness to others in the community of faith.
It is the good news of the gospel that in Jesus Christ “there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared” (Ps. 130:4, KJV). Not everyone who thinks he is forgiven is actually forgiven, but that is not because of a shortage of forgiveness with Christ. We find it very difficult to forgive the same person three times, much less seven, but in His mercy Jesus casts all the sins of His people “into the depths of the sea” (Mic. 7:19).
Notice, however, that mercy without judgment is not scriptural. This is clearly seen in the king’s final treatment of the first servant. God is a God of profound mercy, but He “will by no means clear the guilty” (Ex. 34:7). Those who abuse His gospel in order to continue in sin and hardness of heart will meet the wrath of a slighted Lamb.
This parable serves to remind us how great our debt to God truly is. By nature, we break God’s law constantly, consistently, and easily. To use the language of our parable, our debt runs into the billions and is unpayable. This itself is part of opening the fountain of God’s mercy. Understanding it will quickly loosen our grip on our fellow believer’s throat. Our only hope is to be truly forgiven out of the free mercy of God in Christ. His forgiveness is lavish, stunning, glorious, rich, fear-inducing, and thankfulness-producing. In this God there is more than enough to forgive the other debtors we pray about when we pray the Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:12). Christ’s mercy is a rushing, mighty wave that can’t stop with us. Let us lean hard on God’s enabling grace to forgive in an unbounded way.
Dr. Gerald M. Bilkes is professor of New Testament and biblical theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Mich. He is author of several books, including Glory Veiled and Unveiled: A Heart-Searching Look at Christ's Parables.