Forgiveness by Numbers

Text: Matthew 18:21-35


Forgiving others is not the easiest part of being a Christian for most of us, but it is a vital element of the Gospel of Christ. Each time someone offends us, instead of retaliating, we should remind ourselves that God is giving us an opportunity to share the wonderful gift of forgiveness.

The frequency of forgiveness

Is there a limit on the number of times we ought to forgive a person who continually sins against us? Peter thought that the bar should be set at the number of perfection, seven. That is the way the religious leaders would have dealt with an offender, but not so Jesus. “It is stated that the Jewish Rabbis held that forgiveness must be extended to one who confessed his fault, but this was limited to three repetitions of the offence” (The People’s New Testament Commentary). By the way, we would not like it if the Lord set His forgiveness at such a low number. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

God does not forgive according to numbers, because His mercy is beyond human estimation. “For the LORD is good; his mercy is everlasting” (Psalm 100:5)… “It is of the LORD’S mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not” (Lamentations 3:22). Jesus told Peter to forgive someone 490 times per day if necessary, that is almost once every three minutes. The number is only meant to reveal to Peter that setting limits to forgiveness is unmerciful and pointless. To forgive by numbers is just keeping scores, and reveals a lack of understanding about what forgiveness is all about.

The parable

To get the truth over to Peter, Jesus told a story about someone who owed the king a huge debt he could not pay. Instead of throwing the man in prison, he showed mercy and let him go free without paying his debt. But the same man went out and found someone who owed him a paltry sum, in comparison to what he owed the king, and threw him into prison. Others saw what the unmerciful hypocrite did and reported him to the king. The king reinstated the debt because the man had learned nothing from the mercy he had been shown. He understood nothing of forgiveness, and did not have the least mercy for anyone else. “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors … For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:12, 14-15). “How justly will those be condemned, who, though they bear the Christian name, persist in unmerciful treatment of their brethren!” (Matthew Henry).

Do we get the gist?

We are either like our merciful Father or the wicked servant of the parable. It all depends if we are willing to truly forgive those who misuse, abuse, and offend us. The redeemed sinner should be able to understand the doctrine of forgiveness and be merciful to others, because the person who forgives appreciates what salvation is all about. Not to forgive others leaves the believer in a condition that resembles an unforgiven state. If God does not keep the score, or forgive by numbers, then neither should we. Harbouring a bitter grudge against someone else only hurts our own standing before God.

“Take heed to yourselves: If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him. And if he trespass against thee seven times in a day, and seven times in a day turn again to thee, saying, I repent; thou shalt forgive him” (Luke 17:3-4). Do we have to wait until the other person repents before we forgive them or hope they get judged if they do not? No, to wait also reveals a lack of mercy. “Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift” (Matthew 5:23-24).


“And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:32). This is exactly what Jesus was asking Peter to do. Our forgiveness towards others must be measureless, boundless and free. To forgive in such a fashion reveals the nature of God in us. “But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for” (Romans 5:8) … “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).