by John MacArthur September 2, 2022
This series was first published in April 2016. -ed.
For a Christian to be willfully unforgiving is unthinkable. We who have been forgiven by God Himself have no right to withhold forgiveness from our fellow sinners. In fact, Scripture plainly commands us to forgive in the same manner as we have received forgiveness: “Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:32).
God commands us to forgive others—it reflects His character. Unforgivingness is therefore ungodly. That means unforgivingness is no less an offense to God than fornication or drunkenness, even though we don’t often think of those sins as equally onerous. Certainly unforgivingness is more frequently found in the open among the people of God than the sins we typically regard as heinous. But Scripture is clear that God despises an unforgiving spirit (Matthew 18:21–35).
As God’s children, we are to mirror His character. At salvation we are given a new nature that bears God’s spiritual likeness (Ephesians 4:24). So forgiveness is an integral part of the Christian’s new nature. An unforgiving Christian is a contradiction in terms. When you see a professing Christian who stubbornly refuses to relinquish a grudge, there’s good reason to question the genuineness of that person’s faith.
Yet to face the issue squarely, we must all admit that forgiveness does not come easily, even as Christians. Often we do not forgive as speedily or as graciously as we should. We’re all too prone to nurse offenses and withhold forgiveness.
Forgiveness is costly. It requires us to set aside our selfishness, accept with grace the wrongs others have committed against us, and not demand what we think is our due. All of that runs counter to our natural, sinful inclinations. Even as new creatures, we retain a remainder of sin in our flesh. Sinful habits and desires continue to plague us. That is why Scripture commands us to put off the old man and clothe ourselves with the new (Ephesians 4:22–24; Colossians 3:9–10). And the new man is characterized by forgiveness—it is an essential garment for “the new self” (Ephesians 4:32; Colossians 3:13).
Forgiveness is so important to the Christian’s walk that it was never far from the focus of what Christ taught. At the heart of the Lord’s Prayer is this petition: “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). Both the context and the cross-reference in Luke 11:4 indicate that the “debts” referred to here are spiritual debts; “debtors” are those who have committed transgressions against us.
It is significant that of all the phrases in the Lord’s Prayer, it was this phrase that Christ saw fit to explain in the most detail. Immediately after the prayer’s amen, He turned to the disciples and said,
For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions (Matthew 6:14–15).
That has always been a difficult passage for expositors. At first glance it seems to make God’s forgiveness revocable. Some have cited this verse to argue that if we refuse forgiveness to those who offend us, God will withdraw His forgiveness from us, implying that a Christian who does not forgive can lose his or her salvation.
But the forgiveness spoken of here is not the judicial forgiveness of justification. It is the daily, parental forgiveness we are to seek when our sin has grieved our heavenly Father. One interpretive key is the prayer’s address: “Our Father.” This is a prayer for parental, not judicial, forgiveness. What Jesus is actually saying here is tantamount to: “If you refuse to forgive, your heavenly Father will discipline you severely for your sin of unforgivingness.”
But that divine priority concerning forgiveness wasn’t shared by the Pharisees. Most of the influential religious teachers of Jesus’ day portrayed forgiveness as optional. The rabbis did acknowledge that the Old Testament permitted and even encouraged forgiveness in some cases. However, they strictly limited to three the number of times any person could be forgiven for the same offense.
They believed they had biblical authority for that view. They drew support for it from the book of Amos, where God pronounced doom on the enemies of Israel with these words: “For three transgressions of Damascus and for four I will not revoke its punishment” (Amos 1:3). In that same chapter God pronounced similar judgments against Gaza, Tyre, Edom, and Ammon, always with the words, “For three transgressions . . . and for four” (cf. Amos 1:6, 9, 11, 13). In other words, each of those hostile nations was permitted three offenses that God overlooked, and He judged them for the fourth offense.
The rabbinical scholars reasoned that if God forgives men only three times, it would be presumptuous and even wrong for mere creatures to forgive their fellow creatures any more than that. So they set a limit on the number of times forgiveness could be extended.
No doubt because of the stress on grace and forgiveness throughout Christ’s teachings, the apostles knew that He was calling them to a higher standard. Since Christ Himself had never quantified the number of times forgiveness is to be granted, Peter wanted to get some clarification. Matthew 18:21 says, “Then Peter came and said to Him, ‘Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?’ ”
Peter no doubt thought he was being magnanimous. He doubled the rabbinical prescription, then rounded the number up to a perfect 7, possibly thinking the Lord might commend him for his generosity. Jesus’ reply undoubtedly stunned Peter and all the other disciples.
Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:22). The fleshly mind immediately protests what seems an unreasonable standard. Doesn’t forgiveness have a limit? Common sense would seem to suggest that repeat offenders should not be granted pardon indefinitely. At what point does grace become gullibility? Seventy times seven is 490! No one can possibly even keep count of such a high number of offenses!
But that is precisely the point! Keeping count has nothing to do with true forgiveness. If an offense is sincerely forgiven, it cannot be held against the offender. The rabbinical system in effect required the offended party to remember and record supposedly forgiven offenses and stop forgiving after the third time. Jesus’ teaching eliminated any limit on forgiveness whatsoever. “Seventy times seven” set the standard so high that it would be pointless to keep an account of the injuries we have borne. But that is fitting, because the sort of love Christians are called to exemplify “does not take into account a wrong suffered” (1 Corinthians 13:5).
Since God’s forgiveness sets the criterion by which we are to forgive, the standard is set blessedly high. What may seem at first like an impossibly unfair and unattainable standard is in fact wonderful news for anyone who has ever needed to seek the forgiveness of God for repeat offenses. Jesus is teaching here that the forgiveness we extend to others should be as boundless as the mercy of God we desire for ourselves. That shatters all the limits anyone would try to place on human forgiveness.
Genuine forgiveness is not feigned or grudging, but is given as freely as we ourselves desire to be forgiven. It involves a deliberate refusal to hold the guilt over the head of the offender. It means ending the bitterness, laying aside anger, and refusing to dwell on the offense that has been forgiven. It is a complete letting go of any thought of retaliation or reprisal. It is, as nearly as possible, the human equivalent of what God promises—to remember the sin no more (cf. Jeremiah 31:34).
Such forgiveness does not come easy, particularly when it deals with the kinds of sins that destroy lives and relationships. When we’re talking about a personal slight or an unkind word, it’s relatively easy to forgive. But what if the offense is more serious? Where do people find the strength to forgive when they discover a spouse has cheated, or when a drunk driver causes the death of a loved one? Is it humanly possible to forgive such offenses?
It may not seem humanly possible, and it certainly does not lie within the power of fallen human nature alone to forgive such things from the heart. But it certainly is possible for redeemed people, under the influence of the Holy Spirit’s power, to forgive even the most serious offenses.
(Adapted from The Freedom and Power of Forgiveness.)