A Brief Commentary on Forgiveness Passages

Many biblical texts touch on relevant aspects of the discussion of the nature and grounds of biblical forgiveness in the life of the Christian.  The following are some of the most widely referenced texts on this subject:

Luke 17:3-4 – Repeated Forgiveness Following Repentance

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.

This passage begins with a present imperative (prosexete), to keep watch over ourselves.  This watch is in relation to our attitude toward forgiveness of those who sin against us repeatedly.  The reference to seven times in a day is a reference to frequency.  There is to be “no limit to forgiving” those who sin against us, even if this can be characterized as habitual.[1]  Without limit and indefinitely, we are to forgive those who come to us penitently.  Darrel Bock notes, “The picture is graphic and clear.  The disciple is always to forgive the repentant disciple, no matter how often forgiveness is requested.”[2]  John MacArthur makes a good point that all of us are repeat offenders.[3]

It is clear that we are always and without limit to forgive the repentant.  Though Ryle rejects the notion that this passage teaches “that we are not to forgive men unless they do repent,”[4] others, including Calvin see this as a clear qualification of the principle.  Calvin comments, “Christ does not order us to grant forgiveness, till the offender turn to us and give evidence of repentance.”[5]  Calvin is not alone in this contention, but is joined by many others in seeing this forgiveness as conditioned on repentance.[6]  One scholar describes the heart attitude of the penitent as an “experience of sincere sorrow over having offended a fellow believer.”[7]  MacArthur, along with Calvin, has a concern regarding the possibility of feigned repentance (c.f. Matt. 3:8).  He adds, “Our Lord was not suggesting that the disciples should throw discernment out the window when it comes to evaluating a person’s repentance.”[8]

Matt. 5:23-26 – The Priority of Reconciliation

Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Agree with your adversary quickly, while you are on the way with him, lest your adversary deliver you to the judge, the judge hand you over to the officer, and you be thrown into prison. Assuredly, I say to you, you will by no means get out of there till you have paid the last penny.

This passage occurs within the broader context of Christ’s exposition of the true meaning of the Decalogue in contrast to the tradition of the Pharisees and scribes.  Here, he follows his teaching that moves the sixth commandment from outward act (murder) to inward act (angry thoughts, hatred).  As Calvin points out, in Jesus worldview “the law restrains not only the hands, but all the affections opposed to brotherly love.”[9]  The verb diallagethi is an ingressive aorist tense which translates as “take the initiative.”[10]  Lightfoot describes this particular term as referring to “mutual concession after mutual hostility.”[11]  The priority is placed upon interpersonal relationships (the second table) even over worship of God (the first table).  In effect, the point is that violating the second table, failing to love another, makes void the attempt to love God.  As John Wesley put it, “neither thy gift nor thy prayer will atone for they want of love: but this will make them both an abomination before God.”[12]  These two, loving God and not loving a brother cannot coexist (c.f. 1 Jn. 4:20b).[13]  Jesus’ teaching is further strengthened with the use of the warning of at the very least civil penalty, but even more motivating, the threat of eternal punishment at the hands of the Ultimate Judge.

Ephesians 4:32; Col. 3:13 – Forgive As You Have Been Forgiven

Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.

In these two parallel passages written by the Apostle Paul, believers are urged to imitate God in loving one another.  Even as God has forgiven us, so we ought to be forgiving toward one another.  As Leon Morris states, “Paul is counseling kindness, not criticism.”[14]  We are further to be tender-hearted, or compassionate, extending the “bowels of mercy (Col.) towards others.  John MacArthur describes this tender-heartedness as “a gnawing psychosomatic pain due to empathy for someone’s need.”[15]  The motivation for our forgiveness of others is our own forgiveness by God who “forgives us far more than we can ever be called upon to forgive others.”[16]  God freely forgives us in Christ, Hodge adds, “preceding even our repentance.”[17]  On this point which is not mentioned in the text Matthew Henry disagrees.  He states that we “should forgive even as God forgives, sincerely and heartily, readily and cheerfully, universally and for ever, upon the sinner’s sincere repentance.”[18]  By using the term “as” (kathos), Paul connects God’s forgiveness of us and our forgiveness of others in that as Foulkes puts it, “there is to be a real likeness between the forgiveness of God and the Christian’s forgiving.”[19] This is a critical observation about the relationship between the two.  They are not dissimilar as some have contended (therapeutic forgiveness) but remarkably similar.  In practicing this forgiveness we imitate God.  As Lloyd-Jones puts it, “if you forgive and are kind and tenderhearted towards others you become like God.”[20]  In summary, this passage teaches the requisite forgiving character of God’s children.  It does not address the circumstances in which forgiveness may be difficult but presents a simple statement as to the priority of this practice among believers.

Luke 6:36-38 – Forgiveness After the Example of the Father

Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.  Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.

As God is merciful, so we are to be merciful.  Forgiving is an attribute of God in which we are to imitate Him.  Verse 37 is often cast in a cause-effect manner, a “salvation by merit”.[21]  Forgive that you may be forgiven.  This cannot be the meaning.  Those who “do not judge” (v.37) may still enter the judgment.  The “unthankful and evil” (v.36) toward whom God is kind may still be condemned in the end.  Instead Jesus gives a general principle of following the example of God as proof or evidence of our relationship to Him.  We are to be inclined toward all men, even as God Himself is.  The clear teaching is that God’s children have a general disposition toward forgiveness, like their Father in heaven.  This passage does not address some of the particulars of forgiveness in difficult situations.  What is commanded is “an attitude that is hesitant to condemn and quick to forgive.”[22]

Matt. 6:12, 14-15; Mk. 11:25-26 – Our Forgiveness, Prayer, and the Forgiveness of Others

Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors . . . if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

C. S. Lewis asserts that this passage means clearly that “if you don’t forgive you will not be forgiven.”[23]  This assertion is often connected to this text.  These passages, however, occur in the context of a discussion about prayer and the believer.  As Walvoord and Zuck comment, they are discussing “personal fellowship” with God rather than salvific standing.  [24]Calvin, in commenting on prayer in this text, states that “God will not be ready to hear us, unless we also show ourselves ready to grant forgiveness to those who have offended us.”[25]    Lloyd-Jones wisely points out that the Lord here does not say, Forgive us our debts “because” we forgive or “on the ground that” we forgive, but rather “as” we forgive.[26]  Lloyd-Jones specifically points out that in this instance the Lord “is not so much concerned about the mechanism or the way of forgiveness.”[27]  It is therefore clear that as Hendriksen comments, “This certainly cannot mean that our forgiving disposition earns God’s pardon.”[28]  Though this forgiveness is not meritorious, it is nonetheless a critical aspect of the heart disposition of those who bear the Family likeness.  France comments, “The point is not so much that forgiveness is a prior condition to being forgiven, but that forgiveness cannot be a one-way process.  Like all God’s gifts it brings responsibility; it must be passed on.”[29]  Calvin agrees that “the forgiveness, that we ask that God would give us, does not depend on the forgiveness which we grant to others.”[30]

Luke 23:34 (c.f. Acts 7:60; Matt. 5:44) – Prayer for Enemies

And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

In this passage we are shown the example of Christ in praying for the forgiveness of those who crucified Him.  As He had taught earlier (Matt. 5:44) His followers are to be merciful as the Father is merciful.  In this text, He does not grant forgiveness to these, but prays for the Father to forgive them.  The answer to His prayer in the granting of forgiveness to these He prays for is not accomplished without repentance and faith (Calvin, Ryle).  Matthew Henry comments, “He did not intend that any be forgiven upon any other terms (repentance and believing the gospel).”[31]  The scope of His prayer and its corresponding answer is not made clear.  Most likely, it includes both Jews and Romans who stand in need of forgiveness and repentance.  This petition may not, however, extend to Annas and Caiaphas (Ryle).  Jesus (and Stephen following His example) shows us the character of God’s servants.  Calvin states, “He had pity on them and presented himself as their intercessor.  Yet knowing that God would be an avenger, he left to him the exercise of judgment against the desperate.”[32]  He separated his belief in the ultimate justice of God from his temporal stance toward men.  He did not, however, affirm the position of universal forgiveness through his words from the cross.  Ryle warns, “let us beware of supposing that the Lord Jesus holds out to man nothing but mercy, pardon, love and forgiveness.”[33]

Matt. 18:21-35 – The Unforgiving Servant

This section immediately follows the classic text on church discipline (vv. 15-20) and should therefore be understand as consistent with those principles.  The parable is in response to Peter’s question concerning the limit of the extension of forgiveness to others.  As Calvin explains the text “expressly declares that there ought to be no limit to forgiving.”[34]  This principle is taught in Jesus’ use of seventy times seven.  The parable Christ uses to illustrate this point does not address the question of the prerequisite of repentance in that the debtor begging for forgiveness from the unforgiving servant was clearly penitent (v. 29).  Calvin on this passage agrees with others that “Christ does not order us to grant forgiveness till the offender turn to us and give evidence of repentance.”[35]  The parable, by using the language of final judgment, stresses the idea that the children of God are to be known as forgiving people, that no unforgiving person ought to consider themselves eternally secure.  Hendriksen sums up the meaning of the parable as follows, “Prompted by gratitude, the forgiven sinner must always yearn to forgive whoever has trespassed against him, and must do all in his power to bring about complete reconciliation.”[36]  The servant in the parable clearly failed to do this.  Jesus goes on to stress that this forgiveness in response to repentance must be from the heart (ton kardion) meaning not merely outward sham forgiveness but an inward disposition.  Forgiveness, in the biblical sense according to Christ, is a heart matter.

The passage is clear in pointing out the acknowledgement of an unpayable debt on the part of both servants.  Both servants acknowledged their inability to pay and beg for mercy and forgiveness.  Thus, the parable is about the need to forgive others following sincere apology, and not about conditional versus unconditional forgiveness.  Dr. Newberger comments,

The servants in this parable each acknowledge their debt (sin).  The servants recognize and confess that they are in debt (have sinned) and are obligated to make things right.  The analogy for us is clear.  As God has forgiven us for our sins, conditional upon our recognition and confession of our sinful behavior, so we must do the same for those who acknowledge their sin and come to us with a sincere apology.[37]

Synthesis of Biblical Data

The above texts clearly teach the priority of forgiveness as an indispensable attribute for the children of God to possess.  Unforgiveness, the failure to forgive others in the way in which we have been forgiven, puts one in jeopardy in regard to kingdom standing.  In many of the texts referenced above, forgiveness appears to be an unconditional duty in all cases because in those specific texts themselves there are no qualifiers governing its practice.  In others, it is clear that the forgiveness we are required to extend is to be in response to repentance on the part of the offending party.  Putting these texts together, it is reasonable to infer from the latter that the precondition of repentance is presupposed in the former.  When we look at sound interpretation of these texts taken as a whole, it becomes clear that:

Divine forgiveness is based upon awareness, repentance, and admission of sin by the sinner.  As God forgives us, we are to forgive others.  Hence, human forgiveness also should be based upon awareness, repentance, and admission of wrongs by the wrongdoer.[38]


[1] John Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Calvin’s Commentaries, trans. William Pringle, vol. XVI (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993), vol. 2, 364.

[2] Darrel Bock, Luke, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 1388.

[3] MacArthur, 187.

[4] J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on Luke, vol. 2 (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1998), 225.

[5] Calvin, vol. XVI, 1993, vol. 2, 364.

[6] See Appendix D: Conditional Forgiveness Quotations.

[7] Robert H. Stein, Luke, The New American Commentary: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of the Holy Scripture, ed. David S. Dockery (Nashville: Broadman Press, 2003) vol. 24, 431.

[8] MacArthur, 187.

[9] Calvin, vol. XVI, 1993, vol. 1, 285.

[10] Archibald T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1930), vol. 1, 44.

[11] Robertson, vol. 1, 45.

[12] John Wesley, Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament (London: Epworth Press, 1966), 32.

[13] William Hendriksen, Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew, New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1973), 299.

[14] Leon Morris, Expository Reflection on the Letter to the Ephesians (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1994), 149.

[15] John MacArthur, Ephesians, The McArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1986), 190.

[16] Charles Hodge, A Commentary on Ephesians (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1991), 201.

[17] Hodge, 1991, 201.

[18] Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1991), volume 6, 570-571.

[19] Francis Foulkes, The Letter of Paul to the Ephesians: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, vol. 10 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 145.

[20] D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Darkness and Light: An Exposition of Ephesians 4:17 – 5:17 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1982), 288.

[21] Leon Morris, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: Luke (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974), volume 3, 145.

[22] Bock, 605.

[23] C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory: And Other Addresses (New York: Harper Collins, 1949), 178.

[24] Louis A. Barbieri, Jr., Matthew, in John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck ed., The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures by Dallas Seminary Faculty (Victor Books, 1988), vol. 2, 32.

[25] Calvin, vol. XVI, 1993, vol. 1, 330.

[26] D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), vol 2, 74.

[27] Lloyd-Jones, 1997, vol. 2, 74.

[28] William Hendriksen, Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew, New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1973), 334.

[29] R. T. France, Matthew: Tyndale New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1985), 137.

[30] Calvin, vol. XVI, 1993, vol. 1, 327.

[31] Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1996), vol. 5, 666.

[32] Calvin, vol. XVII, 1993, vol. 3, 306.

[33] J.C. Ryle, Commentary on Luke (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1858), vol. 2, 462.

[34] John Calvin, vol. XVI, 1993, vol. 2,364.

[35] Ibid, 364.

[36] William Hendriksen, Exposition of the Gospel According to Luke, New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1978), 709.

[37] Ken Newberger, Hope in the Face of Conflict (Three Sons Publishing, SDM, 2011), 330.

[38] Newberger, 331.

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