We will never understand the beauty of forgiveness until we understand our need for it. Why do we need forgiveness? Because we are guilty of sin. In Romans 3:23, Paul says, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God….” Later, John confessed the same truth, saying, “If we say we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us….If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us” (1 Jn. 1:8, 10). Because we are guilty of sin, we all need God’s forgiveness through the blood of Jesus our Savior.
Perhaps, a more penetrating question is: “Why should I forgive others?” We must forgive others or our own sins will remain unforgiven. Jesus taught us to pray as follows: “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Mt. 6:12). Then, He adds: “for if you forgive men for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions” (Mt. 6:14-15). Sounds like people have always struggled with forgiveness. But someone might object, saying, “I would forgive, but they do not deserve it!” While that may be true, neither do we deserve God’s forgiveness.
Closely related to our need for God’s forgiveness, is the question of how often must we forgive others. Peter asked, “‘Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven’” (Mt. 18:15-20). Peter may have thought he was being generous in being willing to forgive seven times; after all, the Jewish rabbis taught that a man should only be forgiven three times. We might say that it was a “three strikes and you’re out” policy on forgiveness. But, Peter doubled that amount and added one more for good measure. He might have even patted himself on the back, thinking that Jesus would be proud of the way he had grasped His teaching about forgiveness. But, instead of praise, Jesus provided correction. He replied, “Not seven times, but seventy times seven.” Peter’s math was way off.
The number “seven” often has a special meaning in the Bible. Seven or multiples of seven sometimes imply completeness or perfection. It is likely that Jesus was suggesting to Peter that forgiveness ought to occur an inexhaustible number of times. He was not teaching Peter to forgive 490 times and no more. He is saying that we must always be willing to forgive. Once is not enough.