Luke 17: Should We Always Forgive People?

Jesus teaches on forgiveness in Luke 17. We discussed it at this week’s Bible Study. It became clear that His teaching on this topic is really quite challenging. Here’s the text:

Then He said to the disciples, “It is impossible that no offenses should come, but woe to him through whom they do come! 2 It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones. 3 Take heed to yourselves. If your brother sins against you, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. 4 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.” 5 And the apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith.”

In verse 1, note:

There is an inevitability about sin, at least in this life. If the redeemed continue to slip, how much the unredeemed? Sinless perfection exists- in heaven. Until then, it is like bad weather- something we must learn to live with while minimising its effects. ‘Offences’ here might mean snares or traps. The one who causes others to sin will be dealt with severely by God. Sin’s inevitability and ubiquity is no defence. False teachers and hypocrites received more lashing from Christ’s tongue than any other groups. Likewise, on the Day of Reckoning, those who led others astray with their lies and bad examples, will have much to explain.

Verse 2:

Such stray leaders await a fate worse than drowning in the sea with no hope of recovery. A millstone was hugely heavy and one tied to it has little chance of escape. What can this fate be but hell? The second part of the verse talks of little ones, which no doubt refer to children. They whom Christ bid come to Him must never be prevented nor harmed. It may also refer to babes in Christ, believers who are not yet mature in the faith. Anyone who perverts the faith of a new Christian will answer to their Maker.

Verse 3:

This verse invites us to consider our situations most carefully. If our ‘brother’, which may refer to family members, fellow countrymen or even other believers, sin against us…we should not forgive him straight away. Have I just uttered heresy? No. Don’t believe that nonsense about God forgiving everyone- He doesn’t. He forgives those who repent and come to Him in Christ. Anyone who fails to tick these two boxes is, and shall remain, unforgiven. Note first that we are to rebuke that sinner. We are not asked to silently ignore it and pretend nothing happened. If the brother wronged you in ignorance, how he can he not but do so again? Does he not deserve to be told, so that he might change? ‘A rebuke goes deeper into a man of understanding than a hundred blows into a fool.’

If, after hearing the rebuke, he repents, you must forgive him. Repent means to grieve for sin and turn from it. What though of those who do not repent? They think they have done nothing wrong and resent your rebuke. The text is clear- he remains unforgiven. How can his sin be discharged and forgotten if he refuses to acknowledge its very existence?

There are three responses we might offer when we are sinned against:

  1. Forgive
  2. Punish
  3. Leave it to God

The first option can only happen if there is repentance. The second you are entitled to perform, as scripture says ‘an eye for an eye’. Be warned, though: the measure you use, God will use with you. Therefore, no Christian must ever take revenge, even on people who sin against them and refuse to repent. No, rather leave it to God: ‘Vengeance is mine, says the Lord, I will repay’. There is, however, a danger of not being able to forgive. You may find yourself nursing resentment which causes bitterness. Christ’s Spirit-filled people must not give the devil a foot-hold by allowing such dangerous feelings to dwell in them unchecked. Leave it to God.

So how can we live with someone whom we have not forgiven? When God forgives, He chooses to forget. It’s as though we’d never done anything wrong. Its memory is erased, as it were, from the mind of God. Those whom we cannot forgive for want of repentance, and cannot punish for the reasons above, we must learn to live with. If a thief steals from you and asks not forgiveness, do not trust him with any more money. If a violent partner refuses to repent, move out. If a liar refuses to repent, believe nothing else he tells you. On the other hand, those who do repent and you forgive, you must regard them as never having done wrong. You must never use their past as a bargaining tool or argument. After all, they are forgiven.

Verse 4

This asks us to do something impossible: to keep on forgiving. Even when it happens frequently during the same day. He claims to have repented, but he keeps on doing it! Perhaps the repentance is genuine and he is just weak. Or perhaps it isn’t genuine. God knows his heart, you do not. Give him then that benefit, and leave the judging to God.

Verse 5

Little wonder the disciples ask for more faith: Jesus asks of them the impossible. Surely even the most patient of us would snap under these conditions. It is interesting that Luke uses the term apostles here to describe the twelve rather than mere disciples. 'Apostle' is rather more authoritative than a mere follower, and is used because their request reveals spiritual insight. The ability to forgive is not a natural human characteristic. It cannot be gained from the psychiatrist’s chair nor learned from watching others. It is a supernatural ability given to believers in particular. He who received God’s forgiveness in Christ is able to forgive others. The recipient of grace learns to be gracious. It comes from and by faith in Christ.

I might therefore paraphrase the passage thus:

'Look, accept the fact that people will sin, even against you (though those who cause others to sin will be dealt with very severely). Be careful. If someone sins against you, always forgive him if he’s truly sorry for it; to achieve this, you need to tell him when he sins. If he keeps on sinning and repenting, you must keep on forgiving’.