The UK Bible Students Website
Christian Biblical Studies
All Scripture references are to the Anglicised text of the New International Version (1984)
Q. Why should we forgive those who trespass against us and how many times?
A. The mercies and favours of God, including forgiveness of sins, are recognised and valued at the present time especially by those who exercise faith in Christ and who to the best of their ability live in harmony with the Divine standards.
God’s forgiveness of sins is, of course, a fundamental Bible doctrine, and our salvation depends upon it. If God did not forgive us, we would be burdened with a load of guilt that could never be removed. The means of gaining God’s forgiveness is through repentance and faith in the sacrifice of his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. ‘In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace . . .’ (Eph. 1:7).
‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?’ (Matt. 18:21). Peter’s question to Jesus is one that Christians still ask. Being far from perfect ourselves, and often in the company of those who may be inconsiderate of our own rights, it is natural for us grumble when we are offended or persecuted, ‘How long should I forgive this behaviour?’ Or even, ‘Should I be forgiving at all?’
Jesus’ answer to Peter makes quite clear our proper reaction to those who treat us unjustly: ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times’ (v. 22). Of course, Jesus did not use the number 77 in a literal sense, but to illustrate the principle that we should always be willing to forgive, regardless of the number of times we are wronged.
It is true that justice is the foundation of Divine government — that God is just. But He is also loving and kind, and to be in the Divine likeness we must govern our own conduct on the basis of justice, while viewing the conduct of others by the rules of love, sympathy, generosity and forgiveness. In advising Peter to forgive a brother 70 x 7, we see the great breadth of generosity in our Saviour’s heart, a recognition of the frailty even of those called to be ‘brethren’. And at his crucifixion, Jesus’ prayer, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing’, manifested his great compassion towards His bitterest enemies (Luke 23: 34).
It is necessary that once we have forgiven someone, that we forget the sin, and not continue to hold a grudge. Forgetting is achieved by an act of will, a positive choosing to remember no more the offences of those who have injured us, or sinned against us. The Scriptures set forth the Divine example: ‘I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more’ (Isa. 43:25).
Must others repent first, before we forgive them? Not necessarily. For one to say, ‘I am sorry’, implies repentance, and we should forgive readily. Yet our Lord’s conduct makes it clear that even where no evidence of repentance is seen, we should in our hearts forgive, even if wisdom leads us to wait for evidence of repentance before expressing that forgiveness to the offender. In many cases the offender will deny having done anything that needs to be forgiven, but such an attitude does not prevent our exercising forgiveness. We do not need the permission of the wrongdoer.
In a very real sense, without forgiveness, there is no future. But let us lift up our heads and rejoice! In due time Christ’s Kingdom will be established, a righteous government destined to bring peace on earth and goodwill to all people. Conscious of the loving mercy of the great Creator, earth’s millions will exult in a universal outburst of loving forgiveness toward all, and look in happy anticipation to a future more glorious than human vision has ever imagined, when all things will be made new.