How many times should we forgive a person? Jesus answers the question with an idiom pointing to limitless, persistent forgiveness.
“Take heed to yourselves. If your brother sins against you, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times in a day returns to you, saying, ‘I repent,’ you shall forgive him.” (Luke 17:3-4, NKJV)
Suppose you have a horse that you love. On the piece of land where your horse grazes, there is a deep ditch. You come to groom your horse, and you find that it has fallen in the ditch. So, through difficult work and help from others, you finally help the horse get free. You care for it and make sure that it’s not hurt too badly and then you go home. The next morning, you return to check on the horse, and it’s stumbled back into the ditch. Rather than shooting the horse, you work to help it out of its prison again. As often as the horse falls into the ditch, you are ready to help it out until it learns better.
Thankfully, God is persistent in His forgiveness. His enduring love compels Him to offer forgiveness to us through Jesus, even when we are persistent in our sin against Him. The point Jesus is making here is that we who have received such persistent forgiveness should be persistent forgiveness to others. So often, people are looking for reasons not to forgive. Jesus makes the point here that His followers are persistent to forgive.
1. We must be ready to forgive.
When someone sins against us, Jesus tells us to rebuke them. Dr. I. Howard Marshall [The Gospel of Luke, p. 642] notes that the Greek verb for “rebuke” (epitimaō) can mean to “censure” or to “warn in order to prevent an action or bring one to an end.” It does us no good to hold a grudge or to caress and nurse the offense that someone has done to us. If we’re sinned against, we should confront. Yet, the bulk of the responsibility is upon our readiness to forgive when repentance follows our rebuke. The repetition of the sin doesn’t disqualify the need for us to forgive them.
2. Remember how many times God has forgiven you.
We are not usually equipped to measure the sincerity of someone’s repentance. One would think that the continual cycle of rebuke and repentance belies a lack of repentance. Jesus, however, calls us to forgive even when the cycle continues limitlessly. Just as we wouldn’t shoot the horse we love because it keeps falling in a ditch, we should forgive others.
So, we come back to the point of Christ’s love for us. He has forgiven us greatly, and He is faithful to forgive us persistently (1 John 1:9). As His followers, we must exhibit that same commitment and persistence in our relationships with others. We must forgive others, even as God in Christ has forgiven us.
Stop. Take a breath. And pray:
“God, as I submit to Your Spirit, remind me today how You have forgiven me so often so that I might have Your heart of forgiveness for those who sin against me?”