Over the centuries there have been thousands of books, articles, sermons, lectures, hymns, treatises, you name it, on the subject of the Bible and of Theology. Here's some more to add to the pile!
Then Peter came up and said to him, ‘Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.’”
“That’s it…I’m done.” “I’ve had it up to here with you!” “You’ve gone too far this time!” How many times have we heard something like this? How many times have we said it? As human beings, under the common grace of God, we may be the forgiving type “naturally.” But even where that’s the case, we tend to have a limit. Maybe the person has done that same thing one too many times. Or maybe they’ve just gone too far this time. Pilots have a “point of no return” which is the point in a trip where half the fuel tank has been depleted, meaning they can no longer return to the point of origin as they would run out of fuel. We too tend to have a point of no return, where our tank of forgiveness is tapped and we feel that we can no longer go back to the way things were before.
As Christians, we are commanded to be a people characterized by forgiveness, which clearly means that we should be running with a larger fuel tank than most. The question we tend to want to know is how large is the tank exactly? How far does our forgiveness extend? How long until we reach the point of no return? If we want to determine the dimensions of our forgiveness fuel tank, there’s two things we need to know: how many times, and how serious?
To answer the first question, we turn to Matthew 18:21-22 where Peter approaches his Rabbi and asks “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Woah! A whole seven times!? Peter, you’re such a forgiving soul. Anyway, Jesus takes this meager number and completely blows it up to seventy-seven times, according to some translations, or seventy times seven times (equaling 490), in others. So, I suppose that settles that. The maximum limit of our capacity to forgive someone is 490 times. At the 491st offense? Done. If you’re anything like me and my brother, that means you’ve got a good year and a quarter at most before your relationship is done!
I think it becomes fairly self-evident that Jesus isn’t assigning a specific numeric value to forgiveness, but illustrating that his followers should be ready to forgive far more than they would naturally be inclined to do. If you recall, our first point regarding forgiveness is that it is rooted in eternity, meaning our forgiveness of others is patterned after God’s forgiveness of us. So if we want to know how many times we forgive someone, just ask yourself how many times God has forgiven you? How many times, even in a single day, do we sin against God and need to lean on His forgiveness? Now stretch that into the scope of your entire life, from the day you were born to the day you eventually die. I’d wager that if we took the number of times we need to forgive every person who offends us over the scope of our entire lives, the tally would still vastly pale in comparison to the total number of times God has forgiven us. So there seems to be no cap on how many times we ought to forgive someone generally speaking, but is there anything that is unforgiveable?
The Apostle Paul is, next to Christ Himself, perhaps the most highly regarded figure in the history of the church. His life and ministry are the stuff of legends and he is responsible for a great deal of our understanding of the person and work of Jesus Christ and its application to our lives. He was a man whom Jesus personally visited after His resurrection and ascension in the famous recounting of his conversion in Acts 9. Brilliant scholar, charismatic leader, fervent missionary. Paul even wrote approximately 28% of the New Testament! What a guy, that Paul! How interesting it is, then, to realize that he was a murderer. Now, this is technically true, as Paul never violated any laws. In fact, his zeal to persecute the church would be a credit to his already considerable advancement in Judaism. But think about it from the viewpoint of the apostles. This man imprisoned and/or killed a number of their beloved brothers and sisters. We don’t know how many he executed per se, but we know of Stephen at the very least (Acts 7:58). So, again, from the perspective of the apostles, this man was public enemy number one!
Consider, then, the significance of Galatians 2:6-9:
“And from those who seemed to be influential (what they were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality)—those, I say, who seemed influential added nothing to me. On the contrary, when they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel to the circumcised (for he who worked through Peter for his apostolic ministry to the circumcised worked also through me for mine to the Gentiles), and when James and Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given to me, they gave the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and me, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised.” (Gal 2:6-9, emphasis added)
They extended to Paul the right hand of fellowship, meaning they embraced him whole-heartedly. Now, we know from previous context that this wasn’t exactly immediate. The event Paul describes here occurred about fourteen years after his conversion (2:1), and he was initially met with great reluctance when he had first tried to join the disciples in Jerusalem (Acts 9:26-27). So even the apostles didn’t capture the full scope of forgiveness initially. But eventually they came around and embraced this man who had once caused so much grief and hardship with open arms. They forgave him.
Paul is just one example of a person being forgiven by others despite serious offence in the Bible, but if we again turn to the prime example of our forgiveness, God Himself, we realize that he has forgiven many who have done even worse! This mainly has to do with the fact that, in God’s eyes, there is no greater or lesser violation of the law. There is perfection and there is sin. There is no greater or lesser violation. You are either perfect in all points and at all times, or you are a sinner (James 2:10). So in this light, if God is capable of forgiving a child who stole a stick of bubble gum, he is capable of forgiving a serial rapist as well. There is no limit to what the blood of Christ can cover for those who repent and place their faith in Him! So too there should be no limit to our capacity for forgiveness.
In light of all of this, as we understand our forgiveness being rooted in Eternity, we should also now understand that it should stretch to Infinity. There is no sin to grievous, no offences too numerable that we can’t forgive. There is no point of no return. The fuel tank has no end, as it is forever being resupplied by the infinite source of forgiveness bought by Christ through the work of the indwelling Holy Spirit. So we should delete things like “I can’t do this anymore!” or “There’s no coming back from this one!” from our vocabulary. Our forgiveness should know no limits, since God’s doesn’t either.