Jesus Calls Us to Keep on Forgiving

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : Luke 17:3-4

“Take heed to yourselves; if your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him; and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, and says, `I repent,’ you must forgive him.” The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”

Luke 17:3-5 rsv

We’ve been thinking of some of the remarkably difficult things Jesus calls His followers to do. From our human point of view, they sometimes seem to border on the impossible. Listen to this all from the Gospel according to Luke, chapter 17, beginning at verse 3: “Take heed to yourselves; if your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him; and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, and says, `I repent,’ you must forgive him.” The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” Let’s try to understand together today just what it is that Jesus is summoning His disciples to do, why He expects this of them and how it can become possible.


The first admonition is straightforward and what we would expect. Jesus is talking to His followers about forgiving each other. It’s as though He said to Simon Peter, “Suppose, Simon, that your friend here, Thomas, offends you. He says something cutting or unkind about you or he fails to come through on a task you’re counting on him to do. Now, Simon, you need to go to Thomas. You must honestly confront him about this, call to his attention what he has done and how it has affected you.” Now let’s suppose that Thomas listens with a receptive heart. He realizes the wrong he’s done. He says, “I’m sorry, Simon. That was not a brotherly act on my part. Please forgive me.” When that happens, Simon is to forgive him. He will respond, “I accept your apology, Thomas. The matter is settled. No hard feelings. For whatever offense there was, you’re forgiven.”

Now it may not always be easy to do that, especially if the hurt has been deep. But friends and brothers can do that for each other, and they do. If they’re disciples of Jesus, they know that they must. Jesus made it clear repeatedly that if we’re to live in the kingdom of grace, if we’re to accept forgiveness ourselves, we have to be willing to extend it to others. We can’t pray with integrity, “Forgive us our sins,” unless we stand ready to share God’s grace with others.

It’s the next part that puzzles us and takes us out beyond our depth. Jesus continues, “and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, and says, `I repent,’ you must forgive him.” Suppose that Thomas, after this interchange of repentance and forgiveness, offends Peter again. He does something else that’s hurtful, speaks another alienating word. Again there’s rebuke. Again there’s apology. Again there’s forgiveness. And the same thing happens five more times in the same day!

It’s easy to read over something like that without thinking carefully about what it means, without living ourselves into such a situation. I’ve known what it is, as I’m sure most of you have, to be forgiven by a friend or to forgive someone else. After that’s over, we’re relieved, aren’t we? We feel good. The shadow that had been cast over our friendship is removed. We feel close again and we’re glad. But it’s hard to imagine, isn’t it, having something like that happen again – right away? You might begin to wonder about this person: what kind of a friend is he or she – after what we’ve just been through – to do this again? I have to admit that it would be really hard for me to forgive again so soon. There might not be the same readiness for it and the same release after I had done it. I might still feel raw, wounded and a little bit hostile. Then if it happened a third time, I don’t know how I would handle that. It might put a tremendous strain on the relationship. But Jesus is talking about that sort of thing happening four additional times! And all in the same day!

What is the Lord saying to us here? Does He really envision a circumstance in which Thomas would treat Simon badly that many times in one day? It doesn’t seem likely, does it? Even the most prickly, hard-to-get-along-with people could hardly succeed in offending another that many times running. And if they did, would they be likely to acknowledge their wrong and ask for forgiveness over and over again? I don’t know of situations in our common, human dealings with each other where that would actually happen. This seems to be a case in which our Lord pushes a lesson to an extreme in order to make the point. Why this divine insistence that we keep on forgiving?


The point is that our forgiveness is not to have limits at all. Remember how Simon Peter on another occasion said, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” (Matt. 18:21). That’s the number Jesus had raised here. Peter is saying, in a sense, “Is that the outside limit, Lord?” Jesus’ answer must have astounded him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven” (v. 22). In other words, this is forgiveness beyond calculation, without keeping score, with no limits. You just keep on doing it.

Let’s not get hung up on the psychology of this, wondering how anyone would not be embarrassed to death at coming back even three times with confession and an appeal for forgiveness. Let’s not think about how such appeals after a while would seem hollow and insincere. This is a hypothetical situation, admittedly. But what we’re called to imagine, to think about, is: What if someone did this? What if they really did hurt us that many times in the same day? And what if they then were genuinely sorry and asked us to forgive them? How would we handle it?

According to Jesus, there is no point at which we can say, “Okay, I’ve had it! That’s enough! I’m not going to forgive you, and what’s more, if you do it one more time, you’re going to be really sorry. I’m going to take it out of your hide!” In other words, there will be no point imaginable where our calling to forgive will have been fulfilled, where we are done with the business of forgiving.

Jesus wants this for us because He knows the value and importance of relationships. He wants offended persons to confront those who have done wrong, to speak seriously with them, to warn them, so as to prevent this sort of thing from happening again. Doing that, you see, keeps us from nursing a grudge, from criticizing an offender behind his back. It says to him or her, “I care about the relationship I have with you. I don’t like this alienation and distance. I want to move in your direction again.”

The willingness to forgive repeatedly is what’s involved in keeping any relationship strong. Let’s think about a marriage. One of the things I stress when I talk with young people in pre-marital counseling is this very matter of mutual forgiveness. In any long-term relationship, human beings tend to hurt each other. They’re going to say things that wound, do things that are thoughtless and cruel, and sometimes forget what they ought to remember. That may not happen seven times in one day, but over a period of years, the occasions will be numerous. Maybe the first time, when love is ardent and marriage is new, we’ll just overlook it. “It’s nothing,” we say. The second time, “That’s no big deal, either.” But if we don’t confront, if we don’t talk it out and tell how we feel, irritation will start building up inside. The hurt that isn’t attended to may fester. One day we may wake up to realize that we, as spouses, have drifted far apart. Or we may have a quarrel or conflict that’s explosive. We’ll wonder, “How could this minor disagreement today spark such a major war?” The problem will probably be that we haven’t been honestly communicating with each other. There haven’t been those confrontations, those apologies, those expressions of forgiveness, those restorations. And without them, friends, no relationship can remain healthy and strong.

We are flawed people. In this matter of showing real love, we often fail. It’s only the acknowledgement of that when it crops up, the giving and receiving of forgiveness and fresh acceptance, that can make life together not only endurable, but rich and glad.

The moment we begin to set limits on forgiveness, the moment we say, “Well, I’ll overlook it this once . . . That better not happen again,” or “Next time you do this we’re all through,” we’re inviting trouble. We have to keep on wanting our relationships to live and grow. That takes patience, forbearance, sometimes worlds of pain. But if you want love to live, you’ve got to forgive, and forgive, and forgive again.


But that’s not the only reason. It’s not only that our human relationships need this; the deeper point is that what Jesus is describing here is exactly the way God deals with us.

I wonder how many times, in the almost-fifty years now that I have known the Lord, that He has made me aware of some sin in my life, something grieving His Spirit. I wonder how many times I have confessed that to the Lord, often the same failing, over and over and over again. How many times have I said, “Lord, I’ve blown it again and I’ve failed. I confess my sins to You and I ask You to forgive me.” And every time, He has done it. He has never said, “Once more and you’re all done.” He has never asked, “How can you possibly be sincere, if over and over again you confess the same kind of sin, receive forgiveness, and then later stumble in the same way again?” He hasn’t turned me away, hasn’t upbraided me for my continued asking. He has simply forgiven me, cleansed me, picked me up, and given me the strength to go on.

So in making what seems to be an impossible demand upon His followers that they forgive one another over and over again, the Lord is simply calling us to deal with other people as He has dealt with us.

It’s not that our sin is trifling. Every sin is enormously significant. There are no “little sins” because there is no little God to sin against. It’s not that forgiveness comes easy, even for God. It’s not cheap. It’s free and without limit only because God has borne the burden of it upon His own heart. Jesus paid it all in His suffering and death for our sins. He took upon Himself the judgment due to us. That’s why there is “no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). That’s why we can keep coming back again and again to the throne of grace and know that every time we acknowledge our sin with a trusting heart, every time we repent afresh and turn from it to God, there’s always mercy. He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness because the blood of Jesus Christ keeps on cleansing us from all sin (see 1 John 1:7,9). Our forgiving of others is the sign that we have been abundantly pardoned ourselves.

Isn’t it interesting that after Jesus taught the disciples about unlimited forgiveness, they cried out to Him, “Lord, increase our faith!” Yes, how else could we ever do it?

If anything is plain in human experience, it’s the fact that people in their adult lives tend to treat others as they have been treated as children. The abused become abusers. The wounded ones wound others. The despised learn all too well how to despise. For such people to learn kindness, respect for others, self-giving love, takes a major transformation. Unless something breaks the grim cycle, anger, vindictiveness, and vengeance keep spiraling downward. Every morning’s paper, every evening’s news, testify to that.

For us to be tireless, gracious forgivers takes a greatly increased faith. We need to hear and internalize the gospel. We need to focus on the wonder of God’s love for us. We need to see deeply how in Jesus Christ He has not dealt with us after our sins or rewarded us according to our iniquities. As the heavens are high above the earth, so great has been His mercy toward us (see Ps. 103:10-11). It’s when we deeply believe in that divine forgiveness and trust with all our hearts the love the lies behind it, that we become more and more able to turn toward those who injure us with pardoning grace.

It’s a lesson we don’t learn all at once. At an intellectual level, we may acknowledge that it’s necessary, but emotionally we may be worlds away from letting it happen in our lives. Yet as the gospel more and more fills our horizon and as faith grows in our hearts, the impossible begins to become reality. We’re able to see those who offend us through new eyes. We can begin to love them with a love that doesn’t give up. And maybe one day, to our utter amazement, we’ll discover in personal experience what it is to forgive as we have been forgiven. I want that for my life. I hope you want it for yours. Let’s ask the Lord for this miracle of grace in us.