Based on a series of sermons preached in PCC Prayer Meetings in 2021
“21 Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times? 22 Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven. 23 Therefore is the kingdom of heaven likened unto a certain king, which would take account of his servants. 24 And when he had begun to reckon, one was brought unto him, which owed him ten thousand talents. …”.Matthew 18:21-35
You will probably be familiar with the Lord’s Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. There was a king who forgave his servant who owed him 10,000 talents.1 A talent is 6,000 denarii. A day worker had to work six days a week for 19 years without spending a cent to save a talent! How long will you need to earn 10,000 talents? It’s an impossible sum. Yet the king forgave him his great debt. But that servant found a fellow servant who owed him 100 denarii. What is 100 denarius compared to 60 million denarii? Yet he refused to forgive him. When the king found out about it, he had this unforgiving servant arrested and tormented.
This is the parable. It teaches us that as believers, we must forgive those who have sinned against us when they acknowledge their sin and desire forgiveness. The point that the Lord Jesus is saying is that every believer must realise that every offence against them for which forgiveness is sought is minuscule compared to all the offences against God for which they are forgiven through Christ. Then by implication, anyone who refuses to forgive someone who sincerely seeks forgiveness could not possibly be a true believer, for he does not really understand the greatness of his sin against God and the magnitude of the forgiveness he received.
This is the principle.
But in what situations is this principle to be applied? Well, as soon as we think about the situation under which it is to be applied, we will begin to see just how confronting our Lord’s instruction is. You see, the Lord Jesus is not really concerned about monetary debts. That’s just for illustration. What situations is He thinking about then?
We can get a sense of what they are if we consider the context in which the Lord spoke the parable.
What is the immediate context? The immediate context is when Peter asked the Lord, “how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Till seven times?” (v. 21). The Lord says, “I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.” He is, of course, not saying that we need only to forgive up to 490 times. Neither is He saying that we are bound to forgive anyone who asks for forgiveness regardless of whether there is credible repentance. Think of the situation where the person has demonstrated by his sin that his words cannot be trusted. Read Calvin’s commentary on this. I am always intrigued by his balanced pastoral comments. When I was a young Christian, I used to think that the Lord is telling us that we must forgive anyone who says, “please forgive me.” It was a naïve interpretation of the Lord’s word. Do we think the Lord is pleased with mechanical, frivolous or hypocritical demands for forgiveness, and expect us to forgive such demands? Indeed, although we ought to give the benefit of the doubt as much as possible, we are not required to simply forgive even when we have hardly any confidence that the offender is sincerely sorry for his or her transgression.
Nevertheless, we should not lose sight of the fact that forgiveness is required of us, even if the sin is repugnant to us.
What is forgiveness? Calvin helpfully teaches us that there are two levels. One is a spirit of forgiveness where we purify our hearts of hatred against the person even before he comes to seek forgiveness; the second involves receiving a brother into favour when he confesses, repents, and seeks forgiveness.
We are to forgive even to the second level, where we have no reason to think there is insincerity on the offender’s part.
But what kind of sin are we talking about? Well, there are day-to-day offences. Speaking words that hurt, for example. This is easy. Four hundred ninety times should not be a problem.
But what about the sin of scandalising little ones, which the Lord refers to earlier in the chapter? What if you are the parent or guardian of the scandalised person, and the perpetrator comes to you to seek forgiveness? What if the sin involved the abuse or murder of a loved one? What if it is over a prolonged period? What if it is a severely aggravated sin of one who ought to know better, yet persisted in it?
That would not be so easy to forgive, wouldn’t it? But does the Lord require us still to forgive? Yes! It will be emotionally challenging, but we must seek God’s grace to forgive. This is what the Lord is teaching us to do. We are given no exception, for even in the case of the worst sin against us, what we are called to forgive is minuscule compared to what sin the Lord has forgiven us of.
What shall we do with this doctrine?
First, let us pray for one another that we may all cultivate a forgiving spirit, and a readiness to forgive sincerely, as Christ has forgiven us. Let us pray for each other that we may not find ourselves being in the position of the unmerciful servant.
Secondly, let us pray for one another that none of us may take advantage of Christ’s call to forgive one another in order to sin against fellow believers with less restraint and then demand forgiveness. Think of how sometimes a Christian may say some harsh words towards another because he expects to be forgiven. Think of a husband and wife quarrelling. The husband—who is perverse in his attitude—may think he can hit his wife because she is a believer and must forgive him. He forgets that there are consequences to his actions. For example, if he commits a crime against her, even if she forgives him, he must face penal sanctions in the land. The penal sanctions may just hint at God’s great wrath against any who tempts Him by abusing His kindness. Let us pray that none of us will be perverse in this way, and if we are, then let us repent of that wicked attitude.
Thirdly, let us not be ignorant of how the devil will make it a priority to destroy the peace and unity of the church of Christ by instigating offences and stirring vengeful sentiments. Let us, therefore, pray that any wounds and divisions in the church of Christ due to offences against one another may be speedily healed through sincere repentance and forgiveness. Only in this way shall the name of Christ be upheld, and all men may know that we are indeed the disciples of Christ. Oh, that the name of Christ may be highly exalted not only in our lips, but in our lives. Amen.
1 That 340,000 kg of silver worth more than US$260 million today!