The disciple Peter thinks he’s being generous when he offers to forgive the brother who sins against him seven times (Matt. 18:21-22). The Lord Jesus takes it past generosity when he answers “seventy times seven” (or 77 times; it’s immaterial which). He means that forgiveness is not about the sin, or even about the brother—it’s about yourself, your attitude toward the world.
Because, really, don’t you often have to forgive your brother 77 times for the very same sin? Maybe you forgave him once, but then you wake up again each morning with the lousy consequences of his sin against you, which endure despite your having forgiven him. And you have to forgive him all over again for that same sin.
You don’t have to be a believer to understand the liberating power of forgiveness. When you forgive, you let go of the sinner’s drag on you; it’s pure human wisdom. But in the parable that follows Peter’s question, our Lord moves forgiveness into a “God thing.” You can read the parable for yourself, but what I’m saying is that in order to forgive your brother who sins against you countless times, you have to enter the forgiveness of God, which is outside of time, outside of results, outside of cause and effect. That’s because it’s not based on any improvement in the sinner. Rather, as the catechism says, “because of Christ’s atonement, God will never hold against me any of my sins nor my sinful nature which I need to struggle against all my life” (Lord’s Day 21).
If you think about it, you’re already forgiven for the sins you’ll do in the future. You need to confess them—but not to be forgiven, because forgiveness is a result of the atonement. You need to confess them in order to enter into the mind of Christ and the grace of God and the work of the Holy Spirit, which in themselves are equal to eternal life.
Yes, think about it. And think about the Apostles’ Creed, which you repeat every week. “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.” The forgiveness of sins is a work of the Holy Spirit, and it is just as much a miracle of God as the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. Indeed, it is a step of the Spirit on the way to that resurrection and that life.
When you forgive the sin of your brother (or sister, or mother, or father, or boss, or child), you enter the miracle of God’s forgiveness out of time, by which I mean the eternal forgiveness of God in the atonement, which the Holy Spirit works among us here in time and space.
How else do you generate “the resurrection of the body” when it’s these old, sinful, scarred, and guilty bodies that are to be resurrected? Do you see how the forgiveness of sins is the work of the Spirit before the resurrection of the body? How else do you express “the communion of saints” if not by forgiveness, because one of those saints is your insufferable uncle who makes the same comment every time you seem him, and you have to forgive him again and again in order to take communion beside him.
Oh, it’s a joyful thing, the forgiveness of sins. God forgives you seventy-seventy-seventy times for that same stupid sin you keep on doing—not because you deserve it, but because of this strange atoning commerce between the Father and the Son, which the Spirit applies to you. As far as you can see, that looks like love. That’s what you do when you love somebody. You know it. And the Lord says Yes.
- Meeter interprets Jesus’ command to forgive “seventy times seven” times to mean that “forgiveness is not about sin, or even about the brother—it’s about yourself, your attitude to the world.” What does he mean by that? Do you agree? Why or why not?
- How does forgiveness become not just a healthy human discipline, but actually a “God thing”?
- What does forgiveness have to do with Christ’s atonement, the resurrection of our bodies, and the communion of the saints?
- Does constantly forgiving “your insufferable uncle” mean you cannot ask him to stop making rude comments? In case of really serious sins done against us, does that mean we may not take legal action? And in case of violence perpetrated against us may we take the steps necessary to prevent further ill treatment?
- How is forgiveness related to love? Does forgiveness automatically lead us to reconciliation with the person(s) who have hurt us?
- What is a biblical definition of forgiveness? Can you offer an example of times when you’ve had to forgive others? What did that look like? What did it feel like?