“Then Peter came up and said to Him, ‘Lord, how many times shall my brother sin against me and I still forgive him? Up to seven times?’Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy-seven times’” (Matthew 18:21-22).
The disciples of Jesus were no strangers to the topic of forgiveness. They had heard Jesus speak about forgiveness on more than one occasion.
In fact, it hadn’t been that long since Jesus taught His disciples how to pray, instructing them to ask their heavenly Father to “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:21). We know this as an essential tenet of the Lord’s Prayer.
The always inquisitive Peter, however, had more questions about the extent and frequency of his forgiveness of others. How many times am I expected to forgive one who’s wronged me, he asked. Once? Twice? Three times? Seven times?
To this, however, Jesus famously replied, not even seven, but “seventy-seven.” Some translations even say, “seventy times seven.”
The point is not to get fixed on a specific number, checklist, or scorecard as Peter was doing. The phrase “seventy times seven,” which we first encounter in Genesis 4:24, is a certain number used to signal an uncertain, nearly indescribable amount. According to R.C. Sproul, when Peter asked Jesus how many times he should forgive, Jesus essentially told him, “As many times as it takes” (51).
Jesus wanted His followers, both then and now, to get in the habit of forgiving those who ask for forgiveness and do it so much that it becomes second nature. There is no limit to how many times we are willing to forgive a brother or sister who seeks forgiveness. This is what Jesus was saying.
What Is Biblical Forgiveness Really?
The practice of biblical forgiveness involves not holding someone’s sin against them in a way that the relationship is strained, or enmity is created between individuals.
Of course, we may never forget the way someone has wronged us. People do terrible, evil things. Even fellow believers are capable of hurting us in profound ways.
The point of forgiveness, however, is that we no longer keep a record or tally of those wrongs that we might use against them in the future.
When someone sins against us, if we’ve forgiven them, we don’t bring back previous sin as an added offense. Their debt has been erased, the score has been settled, and they are free from any burden of guilt.
We too are freed from bitterness, anger, and the constant need to seek retribution or demand reparation for their wrongs. It’s not easy. When someone hurts us, we often want to hold onto our resentment and sense of indignation, believing we are justified in seeking retribution or vindication.
The Bible, however, says that we are to “let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:31-32).
Forgiveness brings freedom to both parties, where unforgiveness only breeds bitterness, resentment, and further division. Jesus had addressed this when He addressed the need for believers to correct a brother or sister who has sinned.
When we lovingly confront those who’ve sinned against us, not in malice or vengeance but gentleness and reconciliation, we give them the opportunity to confess, repent, and seek forgiveness. If they do, wonderful. As Jesus says, “you have won your brother” (Matthew 18:15). This, of course, should always be the goal, the restoration of the relationship.
In many ways, this aligns with the heart of God, who exposes the ways we have wronged Him and offers a path to forgiveness and reconciliation where He, “remembers our sin against us no more” (Jeremiah 31:34; Hebrews 8:12).
How Did Jesus Explain Forgiveness in Parables?
Following his call to forgive “seventy times seven” Jesus amplified His message with a parable about a forgiving master and an unmerciful, ungrateful servant.
Nothing about Jesus’ teaching was frivolous or superficial, and He often used short, simple stories, known as parables, to illustrate deeper spiritual concepts to those with a hunger for the truth and “eyes to see and ears to hear” (Matthew 13:9).
Many, unfortunately, had rejected the truth and Jesus altogether. To those who refused to listen, the parables were heard but not understood, as the mysteries of the Kingdom of God were hidden from them.
In the parable of the unmerciful servant, Jesus paints the picture of a wealthy master who was moved to compassion for a servant who could not pay a substantial debt. Instead of throwing the servant in prison, the master mercifully forgave his servant’s debt and sent him on his way.
The servant, however, would later forget completely about His master’s abundant grace and go on to demand payment from another servant who owed him an even lesser sum.
When the master heard of this, he was outraged, saying to the first servant, “you wicked servant, I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow servant, in the same way I had had mercy on you?” (Matthew 18:32-33).
The master then threw his servant in prison until he could repay all that he had previously owed. Jesus used this parable to illustrate the extent of God’s mercy and forgiveness towards us.
Like the servant, we too are hamstrung by an insurmountable debt we cannot hope to repay. Jesus, of course, was referring to the consequences of sin. As it is written in the book of Romans, “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 3:23).
Scripture tells us that “if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
To those who confess their sin, repent, and seek forgiveness, God removes all record of their sin against Him. As prophet Isaiah writes, “I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins” (Isaiah 43:25).
The prophet Micah also put it this way, “Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in steadfast love. He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities underfoot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:18-19).
Therefore, if we have been forgiven such a debt, how much more should we daily be willing to forgive others and release them from the debt of those wrongs they have committed against us.
This was the point of the parable and Jesus’ message on total forgiveness.
Jesus would go on to provide this stern warning to those who don’t, saying as the master punished the ungrateful servant for his lack of mercy so “my heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart” (Matthew 18:35).
What God has done for us, we are called to do for others. After all, if God is willing to forgive us day after day after day for our sin and repeated offenses, how much more should we be willing to forgive those who’ve wronged us.
In the same way, when we accept the free gift of salvation and step into God’s complete, total forgiveness, we are freed from the shackles of sin and our hearts are transformed to become more like His.
We develop a heart of gratitude and a willingness to forgive because we recognize and appreciate just how much Christ has forgiven us.
And we know that it is far more than seven, seventy, or seventy times seven. It is beyond measure and by far the most magnificent, undeserved gift of grace we could ever receive.
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Joel Ryan is a children’s book author, writing professor, and contributing writer for Crosswalk, Christianity.com, Stand Firm Men’s Magazine, and others. He is passionate about telling great stories, defending biblical truth, and helping writers of all ages develop their craft. Joel discusses, analyzes, and appreciates the great writings of the past and present on his website, Perspectives off the Page.