Is There A Limit To Forgiveness?

Text: Matthew 18:21-35

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

It is difficult to fail and make mistakes.  However, what is often more difficult is knowing how others will respond to our failures.  Will the mistake go unnoticed?  Will we be called out and drug through the mud?  Will we be given the silent treatment? How bad will we be punished?

To make things even more confusing, it seems as if the world around us is inconsistent.  According to the world, some failures do not seem that big of a deal, which means that you can get away with them on any day of the week.  But other mistakes and failures?  Well, these mistakes and failures may lead to you being the top story on the nightly news, or you losing your, or you ending up in prison. 

And so, life can be somewhat confusing when it comes to mistakes and failures.  How much forgiveness should be available to one another? 

The Ancient Rabbis used to limit forgiveness to just three times.  Three strikes with the Ancient Rabbis, and you would be out. 

I ran into a mom the other day that had the one-strike policy.  The kids would get one warning, in which they would apologize.  And then with strike one?  Yes, the kids would be out!  Done!  Toys taken away.  Full mommy wrath.  (I liked this mom a lot).    

Peter asked Jesus one time about all of this.  We hear Peter’s question in the reading from the Gospel of Matthew,

“Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” 

Peter was much more generous with forgiveness. Not one strike, nor three strikes, but seven strikes with Peter.

So, what is that sweet number of forgiveness?  Does the number of times for forgiveness depend on the seriousness of the infraction and sin? For example, since the average worker in America makes 128 mistakes per year at work, does that mean that forgiveness should be limited to 128 tiny infractions per year - approximately ten mistakes per month?  What about the more severe mistakes and sins?  For serious mistakes and sins, should it be limited to three or seven?

Jesus chimes in and answers Peter’s question, and ours, saying,

“Not seven times but seventy-seven times.”

With this answer, is Jesus limiting forgiveness to 77 times, showing that He is a bit more gracious than Peter? 


Jesus is not limiting forgiveness to 77 strikes, but rather, He shows that forgiveness is limitless.  He is not setting a boundary or putting a cap on forgiveness.  He is not setting a limit to forgiveness as the world does. 

You see, we must keep in mind that the way the world thinks about forgiveness is quite different than the kingdom of grace.  The world generally has a cushion for everybody concerning mistakes, failures, and sins.  For the most part, the average person can make anywhere from 1 to 7 mistakes at a job and not have to worry about being fired.  Perhaps in our social groups, we too can make anywhere from 1 to 7 mistakes and have a reasonable amount of understanding from those around us.  But make no mistake, when you and I use up that cushion, we find that forgiveness, mercy, and grace dry up very quickly from the world. 

Consider for a moment.  Every one of us typically views the sins of our neighbors as bigger than our sins.  We downplay our sins, giving us a lot of leeway and elbow room, but the sins of our neighbors?  They tend to be much bigger than ours.  And so, we are quick with our neighbor to let them use up the limit of forgiveness, and then we resort to the playbook of the world once forgiveness has dried up. 

And the playbook of the world?  It works like this! 

Imagine Johnny has had a really tough couple of months, and he has used up that cushion of forgiveness and understanding from his neighbors.  The following week Johnny drinks a little too much and smashes his car into a telephone pole near his house.   Everyone in the neighborhood wakes up and sees the mess created by Johnny.  Because this is the last straw for Johnny, the neighborhood then resorts to the playbook of the world and makes sure that everyone in the neighborhood has an extended finger pointing at Johnny with an accusing condemnation.  This happens through gossip – conversation on social media, talk on the street, and at neighborhood fellowship gatherings.  But it does not stop there. Johnny's sin is then attached and glued to Johnny’s reputation, and Johnny is glued to the sin.  The sin becomes Johnny’s identity.    The sin is connected to Johnny so that in the next 20 years, everyone will know Johnny for the sin he has committed.  Ten years later, at a community picnic, when Johnny is brought up, everyone will say,

“Oh, isn’t he the guy who smashed into that pole?  What a stupid drunk.”

So, once Johnny is accused and imprisoned in his sin, two more things happen for Johnny. Everyone is quick to punish Johnny for any other infractions that he commits.  And the neighborhood is agitated, quick to anger, with a short fuse.  There is no sympathy or love towards Johnny but hate, apathy, and wrath. 

Perhaps we should make this story a bit more interesting.  Let us assume that after Johnny smashed his car into the pole that he writes a written apology to the neighborhood, sharing that he has gone through some rough times and that he is now in AA and very sorry for his actions.  Now, perhaps some will show sympathy to Johnny and grant him a third or fourth chance but generally speaking, once the way of the world has had its way, it is too late for Johnny. Once accused and imprisoned, a person like Johnny will be outside the allotted amount of love and patience and be left with quick anger and apathy. 

It hurts me to say this as a pastor, but this is why people often move from particular neighborhoods to new neighborhoods. This is the reason why people many times quit jobs and start new jobs. This is the reason why people will leave the church and starting a new church. When we limit forgiveness to a specified amount, and once that amount of forgiveness has been exhausted, we give way to the playbook of the world and accuse a person and imprison them in their sins with no way out. 

Lord have mercy on how we limit forgiveness.  Lord have mercy on me, on you, and us as a church.  This is not the way of the kingdom of grace. 

Contrary to the way of the world, Jesus says that there is no limit on forgiveness in the kingdom of grace.  But let us be careful not to assume too much at this point. The kingdom of grace is not a kingdom of tolerance.  Tolerance is not biblical but comes out of the playbook of the world.  You see, when the world is not condemning, accusing, and imprisoning people in their sins, the world is simply tolerating sin or perhaps even celebrating it.  But neither of these has anything to do with the kingdom of grace. 

Dear Baptized Saints, the kingdom of grace is not content to turn a blind eye to sin or celebrate sin, for that accomplishes nothing.  It does not accomplish anything at all except to leave people floundering in their sin – stumbling in darkness.  And the kingdom of grace does not call out sin to run the playbook of the world.  The kingdom of grace is not about calling out sin to imprison and accuse a person for eternity.  But rather, the kingdom of grace is about pardon and forgiveness. It is about patience and compassion with respect to sin and sinners. 

And so, what this means is that the church is the one place where we Christians gather neither to celebrate sin nor share sin to be condemned for eternity but share our sin – no, I should say - confess our sin so that we might be forgiven and pardoned.

This is what the kingdom of grace is all about.  You and I come to this church to confess our sin so that we might hear the pardoning words of Jesus that there is no condemnation for you and me. You and I confess our sin to hear that Jesus has not glued you and me to our sins for eternity but separated you and me from our sins and our sins from us.  Jesus separates you from the condemnation of sin because He connected Himself to your sin and pulled your sin into His death. 

And the most beautiful news that you and I can hear?  This forgiveness and pardon for sinners are available week, after week after week. No limits. No grace held back.  As often as people gather into this sanctuary to confess sin, the Lord is compassionate and patient to pardon and forgive because there is always more forgiveness in Christ Jesus than there are sins in you and me.

And even more beautiful news?  As forgiven and pardoned sinners, you and I are not only recipients of grace, be we are also freed to forgive those who sin against us.  Only forgiven people can forgive. 

And so, as you continue in this life, you certainly will be tempted to go the way of the world but remember the world will only let you be defined by the sins that you have supposedly not committed or have committed, which makes you either a smug jerk or a shamed looser.  But not the kingdom of grace.  In the Christ’s church, you are neither a smug jerk nor a shamed looser.  The kingdom of grace defines you by the one who has forgiven you of all your sins – Christ. 

You are the forgiven Baptized.  Hear that now!  Remember that.  Do not let go of that truth and promise. 

And when you come back to this church week after week after week, confess your sins boldly not unto condemnation or celebration, but unto Christ’s pardon, forgiveness, and peace.  And confess your sins boldly to each and forgive even more boldly in Christ, for you belong not to the world but the kingdom of grace.    

In the name of Jesus. Amen

CLICK HERE to 'Like' on Facebook
CLICK HERE to 'Follow' on Twitter
CLICK HERE to Subscribe on iTunes
CLICK HERE to Subscribe on Podbean