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Learning to Forgive

“Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him?” (Matthew 18:21).

In Matthew 18, we see our Lord teaching on the childlikeness of the believer. In verse 2, the text tells us that Jesus actually took an infant and held that infant in His arms to be used as a living illustration of the childlikeness of the believer. And then He began to teach elements of our childlikeness.

First, we are to enter the kingdom like children. Verse 3 says, “unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of Heaven.” And then we are to be protected like little children. Verse 6 says, “whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.” And then we are to be cared for like little children. Verse 10 says, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in Heaven their angels always see the face of My Father who is in Heaven.”

And then, as we come to verse 21, we will note that we are to be forgiven like children. There’s a great sense of tolerance with children, because we understand their weakness. We understand their ignorance. We understand their inabilities. Being childlike is indicating that we’re going to fail. There are going to be times when we do the wrong things. We’re still in the process of maturing, of growing up, of ordering our behavior. But when we do sin, and after discipline has been enacted, we also are to be forgiven just as children are to be forgiven.

People can rather easily hold grudges against adults, but it’s somewhat abnormal to hold them against children. We need, then, to remember the teaching of this passage, that believers are to be treated like children—for in the spiritual sense we are like children, and we need the same kind of gracious continuing forgiveness that a child does.

Now, forgiveness is a great, great virtue. I really believe that it is the key to the unity of the church. It’s the key to love. It’s the key to meaningful relationships. It’s what constantly tears down the barriers that try through sin to be built up to separate us from one another, to wall us off, to make us bitter, and angry, and vengeful.

Forgiveness is a tremendous concept. In fact, in Proverbs 19:11 (NIV) it says, “it is to one’s glory to overlook an offense.” In other words, if you want to see a person at their best, they are at their best in their ability to forgive, to overlook a transgression, to forget a sin. Ephesians 4:32 takes the thought even a step further for Christians and it says we are to be “forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”

Based upon the fact that we have received the forgiveness of God in Christ, we are to offer forgiveness to others. Colossians 3:13 has the same thought: “forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” It is the glory of a person to forgive another, and particularly for a Christian who has been forgiven so much by God through Christ. And if, in fact, the best quality of people is in relation to  their ability to forgive, and if we as Christians have been forgiven everything, how eager we should be to be able to forgive others.

—John MacArthur, condensed