A Lesson On Forgiveness
“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
In the opening part of Matthew, chapter 18, our Lord was speaking to His disciples about greatness in the kingdom. He had spoken to them about the heart of a child as an example of greatness. They were quite mystified about this kingdom He was going to set up. It seemed to them that He had spoken about the Cross—that was the end of all their hopes. What, then, was to be the mark of greatness in His kingdom?
The Lord Jesus put a little child before them and spoke about the child’s heart with all its simplicity, all its submissiveness, and yet with its sinfulness. These ever characterize the man who would enter into the kingdom of God, for he cannot get in any other way except he humble himself and become like a little child.
Then, Christ went on to speak with tremendous sternness and severity to those who would offend and cause a young Christian to stumble in his life. Better for such, He said, to have a millstone put round his neck and be cast into the depths of the sea. Therefore, He said, if I cause someone else to stumble, if my eye causes offense, pluck it out. If my hand causes offense, cut it off. It is better to enter into life maimed than to enter hell with two hands and two eyes.
What are we to do with these who offend others? Supposing I have offended someone else; supposing my life has failed to be the example that it should have been; supposing I have caused someone to stumble—and which of us hasn’t? What are we to do? Is there any hope for such? Is there any forgiveness? Is there any restoration? Is there any answer in the life of the man who is conscious of so often having caused others to stumble?
Here is the second great lesson of this chapter. The first had to do with greatness; the second has to do with forgiveness and the two, my dear Christian, and inseparably linked, for the symptom of a man’s greatness is his capacity to forgive other people. If I may very reverently say so, that was outstandingly so in the heart of God. His limitless capacity to forgive must be repeated in some sense in the lives of all who are in His family, as a mark of family likeness, and as an evidence that we belong to the King of kings. When this is so, there will be about my life and yours, a large-heartedness with a capacity to forgive other people.
What amazing teaching there is in these verses. How they scorch us—and yet how they comfort us. The same Lord who made us tremble at the very thought of causing offense to others is the One who calls upon us to share His love and His compassion to those who offend and to go after them until they are restored. There is no exhausting of the love of God; there is no limit to its outreach; there is no end to its patience; there is no limit to the offense that God can take and yet go on loving.
As Phillips says in that lovely chapter of 1 Corinthians 13, “Love knows no end to its trust, no limit to its endurance, no fading of its hope. It can outlast anything.”
Somehow, that quality has to become the distinctive mark of all of God’s children. The Lord help us.
To see it all in its setting, I want you to notice in the first place the instructions concerning forgiveness which our Lord gives to His disciples—instructions which provoked Peter to ask the question, “How often do I forgive my brother?” and which led to the illustration with which the chapter closes.
I want you to follow me carefully because I believe it to be of supreme importance in the life of the Christian church. What does the Lord say about the brother who offends? You find His instructions in the 15th through the 20th verses of this chapter. “If thy brother sin (trespass) against thee.” There are many of the most reliable manuscripts of the New Testament which do not contain those words “against thee.” We cannot be sure whether they were actually said, but the fact that they are omitted from some reliable translations suggests to me that my responsibility to my brother who has offended and who has sinned does not arise because he has hurt me; it arises because he has hurt himself. “If thy brother sin.”
Now, of course, if we are conscious that our brother has sinned against us, the first thing we want to do is to tell him so and deal with him very firmly and tell him quite straight that we are not going to stand any more of it. Why do we say that? Because he has hurt us. If we would take that line, the best thing we can do is to keep quiet until we have learned the lesson that Jesus has to teach us. But if our motive is, as the Scripture says it must be, to gain our brother—if we are perfectly clear in our motive—then, says the Lord Jesus, “If thy brother sin.” You see the tragedy of the sinning Christian is not simply that he has hurt others, but that he has hurt himself. He has damaged his fellowship with the Lord Jesus Christ, and he has damaged his power in Christian service. He has ruined his testimony. “If thy brother sin.”
What does Jesus say I must do? I must begin by going and showing him his faults between himself and myself alone. Now listen, this is not something which Christ says I can do if I want to; it is something He says I must do. This is not a suggestion, it is an instruction that ought to be operative within the fellowship of the Christian church. It is only weakness or false pity that prevents our going to one who has offended and been wrong and sinful, and pointing out his faults in order to restore him. Our sacred task is to be an instrument in the hands of the Lord Jesus to show him his sin, and if he admits it and in the depths of his heart acknowledges it, then the purpose of our ministry to him has been fulfilled. Out of that confession there will come repentance and out of that repentance a restored walk with God.
This is something, says Jesus, that I must do. But if I would do it, let me first go to Him alone in prayer and ask, “What is my motive? Is it to restore him or is it because I am angry because he has hurt me?”
But let us go on. Supposing he won’t hear us? What then? My responsibility doesn’t end, for I am to take one or two others and to go to him again on the same sacred business—to bring him back to forgiveness.
But supposing he won’t hear me, and he won’t hear two or three others? Then what? Then we are to tell it to the church. For in so doing, either the man who offends will be restored, or he will be treated as a publican and put out of the fellowship.
My friend, notice the tremendous responsibility and authority which the Lord Jesus gives to His church. Look at verses 18 to 20.
“Verily, I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in Heaven.
“Again I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven.
“For where two or three are gathered together in my name there am I in the midst of them.”
How often you and I have found comfort from those few words, “where two or three are met, there our Lord is in the midst.” But tell me, have you ever seen those words in the tremendous, awful, almost fearful setting in which the Holy Spirit puts them in the Word of God? Oh yes, they tell us that wherever two or three are met together in the name of the Lord, He is there anywhere, and that is as true in our little cottage prayer meetings as it is true in the auditorium. It is as true in a hospital ward, it is as true in the privacy of our own home as it is in any church where we assemble together, for where we are met in His name there He is in the midst of us.
Yes, and these words tell us that if two agree on Earth as touching anything, it shall be done of the Father which is in heaven, and there is the tremendous authority behind our public prayer meeting.
But listen, they tell us also that what the church shall bind on Earth shall be bound in heaven, what it shall loose on Earth shall be loosed in heaven. In other words, if the church that unites in the name of the Lord Jesus and in His presence, even if there are only two or three, agrees together and asks that request recognizing the authority of Jesus Christ in the midst, it has power to bind and has power to set free. Here is the picture: here is our brother who has offended, he who has caused someone to stumble, the Christian who has sinned and gotten out of a walk with God. Here he is. What are we to do with him? We go to him personally and he won’t hear us. We take two others, and still he won’t hear. We go to the church and the church takes it to heaven in prayer, and heaven answers with the authority of the Holy Spirit to bind or to set free. Then if that offending brother hears the church, he is welcome back into fellowship and heaven sets the seal upon the decision of the family, and in being restored publicly he is restored in heaven before the angels. But if he refuses to listen, then the purity of the church must matter more than anything else, and the unrepentant soul cannot be allowed shelter any longer within the congregation of God’s people. He must be put outside the fellowship.
But wait—is that all? No, for the moment he is outside he becomes, as Christ has said, as one for whom Jesus came to seek and to save—the man who is lost. He isn’t put outside that he may know not merely the purity of the church, but the matchless forgiveness of the grace of God revealed in the ability of Christian people who have dealt with him firmly, still to preach to him a Gospel of forgiveness.
I have a feeling that we have forgotten that. My friend, the church, Christ’s body on Earth, is a holy thing, indwelt by the Holy Spirit. Men who offend and cause others to stumble, but refuse to listen to those who speak with them and to the church, have no business within its fellowship and have to be put out. Never in the Pharisaical attitude of judgment, but because the church is holy; and therefore, that which is sinful goes out until there is repentance and confession and return—the instructions concerning forgiveness.
Now let us next notice the mistake of the disciples, verses 21 and 22. Peter comes to the Lord Jesus and says, “Lord,” (having listened to all of this) “how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Tell seven times?”
I am quite sure that Peter thought he was being wonderfully gracious. As a matter of fact, if you and I forgave an offending brother seven times, we would think we were going the extra mile too, wouldn’t we? Indeed, in contrast with everything that Peter had learned from the law of the Scribes and Pharisees, he certainly was going the extra mile. I can almost picture his sense of having arrived there in his mind. He has come to the place of greatness now. “Lord Jesus, I am prepared to forgive seven times. Is that enough?”
What an answer came from Christ. “Peter, did you say seven times? Peter, I suggest you try four hundred and ninety times—seventy times seven. In other words, Peter, in my forgiveness of you, you ought to know I set no limits whatsoever, and I am expecting you in your relationships with other people not to set any boundary either.”
Beloved, that is the principle upon which Jesus has dealt with you and me all through our lives. It was the basis upon which He met us at the Cross, and it is the basis upon which He has been dealing with us ever since. Therefore, it must be the basis of our dealing with another Christian.
Listen, has someone offended you lately? Has someone hurt you? Have you suffered unjustly at the hands of somebody else, not once or twice, but many times? My friend, what has been your reaction? Has it been to stamp your foot and say, “I’ve had enough. I’ve forgiven him once, twice, three times, and that’s enough. I can’t take it any more. He just has to go.” Has this been your reaction, or have you gazed at the nail prints in the hands of the Lord Jesus and looked up to Him and recognized that there were no limits in His forgiveness of you, and therefore you can set no limits either?
Finally, and most important of all, and oh, this teaching terrifies me and my heart as I give it to you. Let us look at this example. It is a very simply story, this parable of the unmerciful servant. How much did he owe the king? “Ten thousand talents,” said the Master. And how much is that? Oh, just a mere five million dollars or so, that’s all. The amount does not matter, for that is not the point. The point is that this man owes the king an amount which he just cannot possibly begin to repay. My Bible tells me that the king was moved with compassion upon this servant, and in answer to the man’s helpless cry, he forgave him all his debt. That is exactly how the Lord Jesus met you and me if we have been there at the Cross of Calvary. My friend, how many sins have you committed in your life? They are innumerable. You couldn’t begin to count them or to start reckoning about them. They are just terrible. Therefore, your obligation, your debt, is absolutely immeasurable. And it is no use going to God saying, “Lord, if you will just forgive me all this, I will promise…give me time, give me time and I will repay.”
The load is too big, the burden is too heavy, the debt is immeasurable. I cannot meet God; I cannot repay; I cannot deal with the past, but Jesus paid it all, and when you and I come to Him, helpless, He forgives—not simply because we have come, but freely on the basis of blood that has been shed, and the price has been paid which is adequate for all our sins.
How many times in your Christian life have you gone back to the Cross and He has met you just like that? You have gone back absolutely ashamed of yourself, never dreaming that after years of Christian living you could do the things you do or speak the way you have, and you have gone to the Lord in true brokenhearted repentance and said, “Lord, I am just ashamed and I am so sorry.” And He has met you in that moment of confession in cleansing and forgiveness.
“Oh, to grace how great a debtor daily I am constrained to be.”
But look, no sooner has the man been forgiven and left the audience chamber of the king, than he searches round till he finds someone who owes him a hundred pence. How much is that? It is around fifteen dollars or so. Oh! He has owed the king five million dollars and has been set free in mercy and love—then the next minute he has one by the throat who owes him fifteen dollars and says, “Pay me everything you owe me.”
Don’t you think the man’s heart should have been made tender, as he so recently has gone into the presence of the king and been forgiven? Don’t you think his hardness ought to have been broken down? Don’t you think as he recognized that he is a debtor to the mercy of the king that he should have left the presence of the king gentle, gracious, broken, kind and meek?
Do you see where you and I get into this picture? The Lord Jesus has forgiven you a debt that is immeasurable, but you have gone out from His audience chamber, out from the quiet time where you have gone to Him with contrition and tears, claiming His mercy and forgiveness, and that is the only basis upon which any of us can live in fellowship with God. But you have gone out and you have gone back to your friend, and you have looked for that person who has injured you and you have him metaphorically by the throat and you have said, “I am never going to forgive him.”
That man hurt you badly. He has caused an injury upon your heart and life that you can never, never get rid of. But listen, in the heart of Calvary’s Cross and the nail-pierced hands of our precious Lord, it is like fifteen dollars compared with five million.
Here is where I tremble in my soul. Listen, what happens to the man who won’t forgive? Verse 34, “And his lord was wroth,” and that is the first time in the parable I read about the king being angry. He wasn’t angry when the man came to him who owed him five million. Now the king is to become angry. The Lord has become wroth. And what did he do? “And delivered him to the tormentors until he should pay all that was due unto him. So likewise, shall my heavenly Father do also unto you if ye from your hearts forgive not everyone his brother their trespasses.”
Oh, let the Holy Spirit speak to us, for listen, the man is in prison again. He is brought to face before God his own immeasurable debt, and he is delivered to the tormentors until he pays everything, and that is a sheer impossibility. So shall my heavenly Father do unto you if ye forgive not from your heart everyone his brother.
Jesus said this is going to happen to me if I forgive not from my heart. Simon said, “Lord, I have forgiven seven times,” and he was reckoning up in his mind, and I think he had it chalked up in his diary at home, “I have done that once, twice, three times; I have done that four. I am really getting great now—forgiven seven times.” It had been forgiven in his mind, but listen, when a man forgives in his heart it is out of his mind forever. When Jesus forgave me all my sins, praise the Lord, they are out of His mind altogether. They are not merely forgiven to be reckoned up one day, but they are out of His mind as if they had never happened at all. Hallelujah for the blood of Jesus!
Ah, but this man is in bondage again for his own debt which he cannot possibly pay. Why? Because he has refused to forgive another person, and in refusing to forgive he is making it perfectly plain that he has never known anything in his heart of the forgiveness of God.
There are therefore two lessons that the Lord has taught us in this chapter that I would underline. First, I dare not have any pity toward sin or anything in my life which would cause another brother to stumble. Certain things that I do may do me no harm, but would harm him. Therefore, for his sake I cut them out, and if I fail there, it is better for me that a great millstone be put round my neck and I be hurled into the sea. But with no pity toward sin, the child of God must show unceasing, never ending pity toward the sinning brother and never, never cease to seek to win him back into fellowship. To fail there is to be dealt with by God in awful severity, for the one thing that Jesus will not forgive is an unforgiving spirit.
Now, please, friend, don’t you let any argument about eternal security smugly shelter you from this truth. The apparently cancelling of the debt can be uncancelled, for nobody can cherish offenses against some other brother or sister and refuse to forgive, and at the same time claim to know the mercy of God’s forgiveness in Jesus Christ. The only evidence that I have truly met Him in mercy and gazed into His nail-pierced hands, I say the only genuine evidence, is that nobody on Earth can hurt me anymore, no matter what they do, because at the Cross I have been crucified with Him.
I close by asking you this question. Tell me, are you in debt to God today? Is the burden too heavy to carry? Is the load too big? Is the crushing load of sin just overwhelming your life, sins that are innumerable, and therefore a debt that is immeasurable? Does that describe you? Come to Him just as you are and claim forgiveness. Don’t wait until you try to get better for you never will be; just claim forgiveness through the blood of Jesus Christ, which is sufficient to cleans from every sin. Then go out and prove that you have received His forgiveness by forgiving everybody else who has offended you, for as Scripture says, “Be ye kind, one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgive you.”