Under what circumstances am I to forgive someone else?

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 (Matthew 18:21-22).

In these two verses of Matthew we observe the number seven. It’s actually mentioned four times: seven, seven, seventy[10x7]-seven. The repetition reveals its confirmed importance (Deut. 19:15; cf. Num. 35:30; Matt. 18:16; John 8:17; 2 Cor 13:1; Heb. 10:28). And both the numbers seven and ten may symbolize completion or perfection. Thus we are to forgive perfectly and completely in all circumstances.

But what does this mean? And how can we do this?

To forgive is to grant pardon for something. It means to remit a debt, a debt that we perceive is owed to us. We do it when we feel we are unjustly treated. Forgiveness includes ceasing to blame and hold resentment against another. Forgiveness should be done with every ounce of our being (spirit, soul, body, mind, will, emotions, present and future actions, etc.).

Obviously, forgiveness is not easy. It goes against what we think we are due and what the offender may actually deserve at times. Most of us are more lex talionis oriented, that is, have an immediate “eye for an eye” response but without any law. Our minds go where they shouldn’t — immediate or long term pay back! We’ve all been there.

We can find essentially the following three types of forgiveness categories in the Bible. I label them (1) Repentant: when an individual repents and we forgive and reconcile; (2) Unrepentant: when an offending party does not repent, yet forgiveness is given, but reconciliation is withheld until they repent; and (3) One-Sided: when forgiveness is unilaterally settled and any right for justice is mercifully waived.


This first type of forgiveness that I entitle “repentant” is a situation where the offending party is repentant with fault(s) admitted and behavior changed. In such cases we are to fully and openly forgive and reconcile. It’s finished, as if it never happened. While we will not necessarily forget the offense, we should forsake the issue as if it had never occurred.

Leviticus 19:17: You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him.

Matthew 18:15: If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.

Luke 17:3: Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.

1 John 2:9: Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness (cf. 1 John 2:11; 3:10 [Matt. 5:21-22]; 1 John 4:10).


The second type of forgiveness, “unrepentant,” involves the lack of repentance of an offending party. We are to forgive them, but unless and until they have demonstrable repentance, we are not to reconcile with them. Yes, it is possible to genuinely forgive someone and still hold the offending party lovingly (cf. Gal. 6:1-5) and otherwise biblically accountable. The situation is turned over to God and he will ultimately settle the matter.

Matthew 18:16: But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses.

Matthew 18:17: If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.

2 Thessalonians 3:6: Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us (cf. 2 Thess. 3:14-15).

Matthew 18:18-20 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.


The third type of forgiveness is “one-sided” and regards dropping a matter as an act of undeserved mercy. Both Jesus and Stephen exhibited this type of forgiveness when they were dying.

Luke 23:34: And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And they cast lots to divide his garments.

Acts 7:60: And falling to his [Stephen’s] knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep [died].

Every one of us has the “eye for an eye” tendency. We will at some time be hurt by someone else either by word or by deed. Everyone at some time in their life will be the victim of some kind of unjust action, word, or circumstance. It may mean undue tears, grief, suffering, and even extreme torment in some cases. It hurts. It's very painful at times. It can’t be undone. It won’t be forgotten.

However, each of us can and must forgive. If you don’t, it will eat you up like an untold number of bullet ants continually stinging you. [1] It can and will consume you. However, it must be let go of, and this can be done with the assurance that God can and will deal with it in his own time and his own way. God does some pretty amazing things. Remember how Christ forgave Peter for his denial of him — three times! — and look at what God did through Peter afterward! Surely this example alone is motivation to let go and forgive.

Here is an example from today's world:

A pastor preached a very convicting sermon on hell at a church where he was serving. However, a deacon at the church, who didn’t believe in hell, was offended by the sermon and moved at a meeting of the other deacons of the church that they fire the pastor. The pastor wasn't allowed to be present at the termination meeting. They voted to fire him, just three weeks after he had sold his home and moved to this town. He and his family were greatly hurt by the situation.

Then this same deacon (whose grandson, incidentally, during the sermon had actually made a profession of faith and began speaking of going to seminary) contacted the church where the pastor had first been ordained. He began a concerted effort with a deacon at the ordaining church to have the pastor’s credentials removed. Another meeting was held, but this time the pastor was allowed to be present and he brought with him a copy of the sermon he had preached. In the end, after a unanimous vote, the pastor was completely vindicated. And the credentials of the deacon at the ordaining church were removed.

The pastor made numerous attempts to speak to both of his accusers. Phone calls and emails went unanswered. The pastor had forgiven them but couldn't arrange to personally attempt reconciliation. This went on for months. About a year later, God intervened. One Sunday after church, the deacon at the serving church had a flat tire. While changing the tire, he was struck by another vehicle and immediately died. During that exact same hour, the deacon at the ordaining church suffered a heart attack, but he didn’t die. He called the pastor from his hospital room that same day and requested he come to visit him immediately. The deacon at the ordaining church repented and reconciliation took place. His revoked credentials were later renewed and he would become an influential youth pastor.
Forgiveness may be a complex affair, but it is absolutely necessary. Reconciliation is wonderful but doesn’t always come immediately. Or at all. The lack of forgiveness is nothing to mess around with. “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31).

Some Forgiveness Facts to Consider

(1) Forgiveness is based upon the shed blood of Jesus Christ: Forgiveness was first exhibited in the Garden of Eden and symbolized by the blood that was shed used in the making of Adam and Eve’s garments (Gen. 3:21. Also shown as the lamb that was slain before the foundation, Rev. 13:8). Christ’s blood is seen throughout redemptive history in the forgiveness of sin after sin.
In whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins (Col. 1:14).

(2) Forgiveness is loving: By extending forgiveness to another we extend Christ’s love. By our forgiveness, others see the love of Christ demonstrated.

By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers (1 John 3:16; cf. John 15:13).

(3) Forgiveness rather than fairness: As Christians, we follow Christ’s example of forgiving in the midst of even the greatest injustices that may have been done to us.

But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Rom. 5:8; 6, 10).

(4) Forgiveness rather than retaliation: As Christians, we shouldn’t lash out, rather we love one another. Payback becomes "loveback" and gives everyone the opportunity to get their life back.

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you (Matt. 5:38-42).

(5) Forgiveness is a requirement: As Christians, we understand that loving one another is not optional.

For 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 (Matt. 6:14-15).

(6) Forgiveness requires action: Forgiveness means we have to purposely act lovingly towards another. Forgiveness takes effort – God working in us to “both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13).

So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First, be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift (Matt. 5:23-24; 8:14-15).

(7) Forgiveness means not giving an advantage to the Enemy: Lack of forgiveness hurts not only the offender but ourselves as well. Division places a smile on the face of our enemy.

Anyone whom you forgive, I also forgive. Indeed, what I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ. so that we would not be outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his designs (2 Cor. 2:10-11).

(8) Forgiveness involves restitution: As Christians, we should deal honestly with others. We should repay our debts and give restitution for any harm(s) we may have caused.

Jacob said, “No, please, if I have found favor in your [Esau’s] sight, then accept my present from my hand. For I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of God, and you have accepted me” (Gen. 33:10).

Much can be said about forgiveness, but as a general rule let forgiveness rule your life moment by moment. And remember to “confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (Jas. 5:16). Love all, forgive all, and thus live more.

Above you saw my initial reference to the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matt. 18:21-35), however to make a more specific point, I only included the first two verses of it. Please read and meditate on the remainder of the parable now. Do you see that the ramifications of one's lack of forgiveness will call down the wrath of God the Father onto oneself (Matt. 18:34-35)? We all sin (Rom. 3:23) and so we all need forgiveness. A British general once said to John Wesley, “I never forgive.” Wesley responded, “I hope then, that you never sin.”

Embrace the gift of forgiveness.


[1] The bullet ant (Paraponera clavate) gets its name from the shot of intense pain it delivers with its venom-filled sting. The recipient experiences its agonizing effects for the next 12 - 24 hours. Living in the South American rainforest and growing to around an inch (2.54cm) long … Dr Justin Schmidt describes the experience as: “Pure, intense, brilliant pain. Like walking over flaming charcoal with a three-inch nail embedded in your heel.” … The pain is so immediate and intense that it shuts down all illusions of life as normal. Zoe Gough. The World’s Most Painful Insect Sting. ( Last Accessed 24 October 2020.

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill).