Formations 08.30.2015: Choosing to Forgive

Matthew 18:21-35

Samuel D. Ehrhart, An International High Noon Divorce, 1906. Illustration shows the circus-like atmosphere of the divorce proceedings of Anna Gould, holding a handful of indictment against her husband, Boni de Castellane.

Samuel D. Ehrhart, An International High Noon Divorce, 1906. Illustration shows the circus-like atmosphere of the divorce proceedings of Anna Gould, holding a handful of indictment against her husband, Boni de Castellane.

It seems the news has been full of people who have every right to lash out at those who have caused them harm, but have chosen instead to forgive. Last month, family members of victims killed in Dylann Roof’s shooting spree at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina posted a YouTube video in which they expressed forgiveness to Roof and urged him to come to faith.

More recently, Anna Duggar has said she has forgiven her husband Josh, who was revealed to have an account at the adultery website Ashley Madison. Despite her husband’s admitted infidelity, Anna has no plans for divorce.

According to People magazine, a source close to the family states, “Anna will not leave him. As with her in-laws, she is turning more to her faith than ever. She and Josh are probably praying around the clock right now, I would assume.”

In both situations, we may wonder about the wisdom of such expansive forgiveness. We may rightly ask questions related to the obligations of the criminal justice system (in the Roof case) or about what is required to bring true healing to an apparently dysfunctional family system (in the Duggar case). Such questions are ultimately unrelated to the personal expressions of forgiveness that each offender has been offered.

In the end, it is the offended party’s prerogative to forgive. And provided it is genuine and not given under compulsion or a misplaced sense of duty, forgiveness has great power to turn around the life of the offender.

On the heels of Jesus’ instructions about restoring broken relationships in the church (Matt 18:15-19), Peter wonders about the limits of forgiveness. How often should one have to forgive an offending brother or sister? Jesus answers by telling a parable about a royal servant who failed to reflect the level of forgiveness that he himself had received.

Aurelie Corinthios, “Anna Duggar Not Likely to Leave Husband Josh in the Wake of Cheating, Porn Scandal: ‘She Is Turning More to Her Faith Than Ever,’ Says Source,”, 20 Aug 2015

“Victims’ relatives forgive, urge shooter to repent,” YouTube, 19 Jun 2015


• When have you been hurt by another? What would it take (or did it take) for you to forgive that person?
• Some assume that forgiving means acting as if the offense never took place or that the offending party now deserves one’s total trust. Is this an accurate understanding of forgiveness?
• What is the value of forgiveness that has been coerced? What is necessary in a relationship for us to forgive freely and sincerely?
• Is it possible to practice Jesus’ teachings about forgiveness and still hold wrongdoers accountable for their hurtful actions? Explain.

Reference Shelf


The most common words for forgiveness in NT Greek are aphiemi and its cognate noun, aphesis. The verb’s classical meaning is “to let go,” with “to forgive” being a somewhat derived sense: thus only forty-five of its 142 occurrences relate to forgiveness most of these in the Gospels (Matt 6:12-14; 9:6; Mark 2:7, 10; Luke 23:34; 1 John 1:9). On the other hand, the noun means “forgiveness” in fifteen of the seventeen times it occurs (Matt 26:28 Mark 1:4; Luke 1:77; Acts 2:38). Both of these terms are rare in Paul’s writings, as he demonstrates a more developed system containing technical terms such as dikaioo, “to justify” (Rom 3:24; Gal 2:16), or katallasso, “to reconcile” (Rom 5:10; Col 1:22). As in the OT, circumlocutions include words for covering such as kalypto (Jas 5:20, 1 Pet 4:8) and epikalyptoo (Rom 4:7), along with words for removal such as airo, “to take away” (John 1:29), apoluo, “to release” (Luke 6:37), and apolouomai, “to wash one self” (Acts 22:16). On one occasion (Rom 3:25), paresis, “passing over,” occurs in the sense of forgiveness, and legal terms such as “ransom” (lutron) may also appear (Matt 20:28; Mark 10:45).

The theme of forgiveness is central to the gospels. John came preaching a baptism of repentance “for the remission of sins” (Mark I :4), combining the old prophetic call to repentance with a new promise of forgiveness through baptism. Jesus made it clear that God’s promised plan of redemption was fulfilled in him: the heart of his work was the forgiveness of humankind (Mark 10:45, Luke 4:18-21). Jesus himself forgave sins (Mark 2:5), and was proclaimed by his followers as the Savior who had come to grant repentance and forgiveness (Acts 5:31). Forgiveness is closely associated with Christ’s death on the cross (Mark 10:45; Heb 9:22; 1 Pet 2:24): as the lamb of God he takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29).

Tony W. Cartledge, “Forgiveness/Pardon,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 306.

How Things Work in the Kingdom

While the parable is uniquely Matthean, its introduction in vv. 21-22 has a partial parallel in Luke 17:4. Once again the discussion is initiated by a question. Peter, apparently thinking he is being magnanimous and knowing that seven is the Hebrew number for perfection or a complete set of something, asks Jesus if forgiving someone seven times is sufficient. The general term for sin here is used, so Peter is speaking as broadly as possible in regard to how one might have been wronged. Here it appears that the repentance and asking for forgiveness of the sinning one is assumed. There is debate about whether Jesus’ reply means 77 times (see Gen 4:24 LXX) or 7 times 70 and so 490 times, but in either case the concept is not to put a limit on forgiveness but rather to suggest the expectation of unlimited forgiveness. “Unlimited frequency of forgiveness goes with the unlimited scope of forgiveness.” The parable is saying that since God’s forgiveness is inexhaustible and since disciples know they are regularly in need of such, so they too must cultivate the ability to continue to forgive without limitations.

Notice how v. 23 begins. It says the Dominion of heaven is like a king who acts as follows. In other words the subject is how things work and ought to work within the Dominion and so by analogy within the community of Jesus. The issue here is actions, forgiving actions, rather than character portraits of God or human beings, though something is implied on that front as well. Notice that the king is the one who wants to settle accounts with his servants. Hereafter he is called the “master,” and the analogy is drawn with what goes on between a master and his servants in a household. God treats his own like family, albeit servants in the household (cf. Matt 25:19).

The servant in question in vv. 24-25 owes an astronomically high sum—ten thousand talents (cf. Esth 3:9). This poor servant owed the king more money than was even in circulation in the whole country at the time! This is yet another example of dramatic hyperbole, and it makes a Kingdom point—the sin debt we owe God is unrepayable since it is so enormous….

Verse 28 provides us with a sudden and unexpected turn of events. The newly forgiven servant leaves the master’s presence and immediately goes out and finds a lesser servant who owes him a mere 100 denarii, and he begins choking the man (cf. 24:49), demanding repayment. There were 6,000 denarii to a single talent, so we can see how miniscule this debt was compared to the wicked servant’s debt. The denarius was the average daily wage of a day laborer in that economy. Apparently the wicked servant had learned nothing from his encounter with the compassionate master.

Ben Witherington III, Matthew, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2006), 353–54.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.


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  1. Paul Hugger (Hugh-ger) says

    I have read the Formations Learner’s Study Guide, only, at this point, perhaps Judson Edwards discusses the issue of trust in relationships. I am disappointed that Lee Canipe in the Study Guide did not.

    Is a Christian man or woman who has forgiven their Christian spouse seven times for an adulterous affair supposed to forgive another seventy times seven indiscretions?