Mark D. Roberts

Mark D. Roberts

What Do To If Someone Sins Against You: Lavish Forgiveness

So far our investigation of Matthew 18 has turned up the following guidance for what to do if someone sins against you:

Step 1: Go and privately point out the fault to the wrongdoer.
If Step 1 is successful, you have won back the offender.
If Step 1 is not successful and the offender won’t listen to you, go to Step 2.
Step 2: Go again with one or two witnesses.
If Step 2 is successful, you have won back the offender.
If Step 2 is not successful and the offender won’t listen to you and the witnesses, go to Step 3.
Step 3: Tell it to the gathered Christian assembly (or, in many churches, to the authorities who handle church discipline).
If Step 3 is successful, you have won back the offender.
If Step 3 is not successful and the offender won’t listen to you and the witnesses, go to Step 4.
Step 4: Let the unrepentant sinner be to you and your Christian community “as a Gentile and a tax collector,” that is, as an outsider.
But always be read to welcome back this person if he or she repents.


After giving these directions, Jesus adds that the church has authority to recognize either the forgiveness or the outsider status of the offender.

The next passage in Matthew reminds us that, according to Jesus, the function of church discipline is redemptive, not punitive. It also reminds us of the extravagance of God’s grace given to us through Christ, and through us to others. (Photo: Rembrandt’s painting “The Return of the Prodigal Son” (c. 1669) is a classic picture of forgiveness and reconciliation.)


Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” (Matt 18:21). No doubt Peter thought he was being generous with this suggestion. But Jesus trumped his graciousness by responding, “Not seven times, but, I tell you seventy-seven times” (or it might even mean “seventy times seven” times, 18:22). The point isn’t the specific number. I seriously doubt that Jesus would want us actually to count up 77 instances of forgiveness and then stop. Rather, he picked a number that signified lavish forgiveness.


In case someone might wonder why we should be so extravagant with forgiveness, the next passage in Matthew 18 is a parable of Jesus in which a slave owed 10,000 talents to his master but was unable to pay. (The hyperbole is obvious here, in that 10,000 talents was worth something like 5 billion dollars in today’s economy.) Yet the master ended up forgiving this slave’s debt. Then the slave went to a second slave who owed the first slave 100 denarii (or 1/600,000th of what that slave had owed his master). But the evil slave did not forgive this debt. When the master learned of first slave’s lack of forgiveness, he sentenced this slave to be tortured until his debt was paid, which, of course, would never happen. Jesus’ point was that unforgiveness is to be avoided at all costs. Positively, we’re to forgive people because we ourselves have been forgiven (by God) more than could possibly be owed to us. We don’t forgive people because they deserve it. Rather, we forgive because of how much God has forgiven us. If this means 77 times, so be it.


It’s not an easy thing to forgive, especially if you’ve been deeply wronged. Yet if you harbor unforgiveness toward one who has confessed and sought your forgiveness, you’re making matters worse for all parties, including yourself. You’re cutting yourself off from the experience of divine forgiveness in your own life. Remember what Jesus said in Matthew 6:14-14:

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

Given this clear statement of Jesus, and the fact that he taught us to pray “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt 6:12), it astounds me how many Christians are mired in unforgiveness. Yes, they’ve been truly and sometimes deeply hurt by others. Therefore it’s understandable that they feel defensive and are reticent to forgive. Yet, contrary to the teaching of Christ, they build up giant walls of unforgiveness in order to protect themselves, and are unwilling to dismantle these walls. The results are dismal both for Christian community and for the souls of those who withhold forgiveness. (The utterly astounding thing to me is that sometimes the unforgiving Christians are filled with self-righteousness and consider themselves to be morally-superior to the person who wronged them and yet confessed and sought forgiveness.)


Some time ago I watched unforgiveness destroy a family in my church. The husband began the offense by being sexually unfaithful to his wife. When his offense became known, both husband and wife went through a period of attempted reconciliation. The husband confessed and asked to be forgiven. His wife said she would accept him back and forgive her. But over the next couple of years, though the husband made every effort to reconcile with hiw wife, she simply refused to forgive him. I don’t think she ever made much of an effort to do so. She would never let her husband forget his offense, bringing it up again and again. Of course I’m in no way condoning adultery, you understand. But, I believe that, in the end, it wasn’t adultery that finally broke apart this marriage. It was the wife’s unwillingness to forgive her husband.


Conversely, I have seen a number of instances where a spouse has been willing to forgive even the sin of adultery. A few years ago a couple in my church went through a horrific experience. The husband had an affair that just about killed this marriage. But he was finally willing to admit his sin and seek reconciliation. His wife, though very reticent at first, ultimately forgave her husband, truly and fully. The fact that they are married today – with a wonderfully strong and healthy marriage, I might add – testifies to the power of forgiveness.

Forgiveness is much trickier in a case where someone fails to confess to wrongdoing. At some point I’ll probably do some blogging on this particular issue, since I think it’s essential for the wronged party to let go of the hurt even in such a case. But if the person who wronged you admits the fault and seeks forgiveness, Jesus is clear about what your response must me: You must forgive. It may not be easy. And it may take a long time for the process of forgiveness to be complete. But, even as God has been lavish with mercy in forgiving you, so you are to be to the one who has sinned against you. 

  • Winger

    Hi Mark,
    I have enjoyed your series on forgiveness; it can be an overlooked art. You mentioned that you might blog on what to do when someone fails to confess to wrongdoing. I welcome that post. In the event that you are not presently able to develop that theme, would you be so kind as to sketch out a few points on that issue? I have a situation where the wrongdoer not only refuses to confess or apologize, she blames her misconduct on the other person. Thanks.

  • Your Name

    Mark –
    I am agreeing with the person who posted the first comment. This series has been so helpful. I was going to ask you something similar to what the previous commenter left – then read it and realized it’s exactly what I would have asked, too. What do we do as believers when someone will not confess to wrongdoing?
    – Esther

  • Thom Hunter

    “But always be read to welcome back this person if he or she repents.”
    I just caught up on the series and I find it very helpful. I wish more Christians would actually try to understand the concept of forgiveness. As a result of my own sinfulness, I was subjected to church discipline. I believe the church had the right to do that. What concerns me is the lack of church members to respond positively to true repentance. Because of the extreme determination to have no relationship with the sinner, it is very difficult for the removed person to demonstrate repentance and exhibit the fruits of such. Churches have a lot to learn about the fullness of forgiveness.

  • Debbie Berkley

    I harbored resentment towards a family member for many years for a series of repeated small irritations and offenses. Meanwhile, it was clear that not only would this person never be sorry, but she did not even think she had ever done anything wrong. These were small problems, but enough to cause unhappiness in a family relationship. Finally I promised God that I would forgive this relative and, though I would probably not forget these things, yet I would never again think of them with anger or bitterness. The fact that I had promised God made this really serious, and so I had to do it. Even though she knew nothing of it, I kept my promise, and the transformation in my life was amazing! The relationship became happy. I was able to love this relative. The small irritations and offenses did not go away, but they no longer bothered me. Where once this relationship was miserable, it now became smooth. The bitterness left my life. Forgiveness did this. God knows what he is about when he tells us to forgive!

  • Marilyn

    My husband had an affair and has done everything he can to receive my forgiveness. I forgave him very quickly because he showed true repentance, but most of all because I knew that I had no choice but to forgive him based on the Bible. If we are forgiven over and over and over for the things we have done, how can we do anything less. I also had to examine my actions, and realized that I too had contributed to my husband looking to someone else to fill his needs. He quickly responds that he takes full responsibility for his choices! But when someone has done you wrong, check your thoughts, actions and motives…………you may have helped lead them astray!
    We have a hard time to forgive, because we are selfish! If we would love others as much as we love ourselves……..forgiveness would come naturally!

  • Xavier

    Great post! The difficulty with forgiving someone is so hard, but there seems to be peace. I really enjoy your insight on this. I’d love to read more on this topic.
    I recently stumbled upon another blog like I stumbled upon yours and I really appreciated their insihgt. I thought you might enjoy it:
    I’d love to see more like it. Thanks!

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment upset

    I ask God just before reading this, about how i was to let go of the feeling of not trusting a younger friend/like family due to something missing that was dear to me. This is my ans. thank you

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Marsh

    I agree with all of what Thom said. I have not been back to my church for that reason.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Cathy

    This is the second time in 20yrs of my husband and I marrage that we have seperated first time he had an affair, I forgave hiim because he showed repentenc and also ecepted Jesus Christ as his lord and saviour for himself. Second time he said that he did’t know why he was nolonger happy at home with us. I helped him leave and at first did’nt beleve that ther was’nt someone ealse. After the childern visting and a few month I talked to him, to find that him given me closure he dos’nt know how to forgive and he was harboring big grudges aginst the people in his life and in our lives. He want badly some reconition from these people, thanks, graditude, appreciation and apologizes for the things he and we have done for them and things done to him and us. I new at this point I felt so sorry for him and needed to pray for him. I told him you will never be happy by yourself or with anyone untill you find out how to let it go, and forgive. Most of all he was angry that I could forgive and move on with my life, and was angry that I’ve let people just walk on me without any reconition of what I’ve done for them. He said Cathy I don’t know how to forgive. Is this a man thing or what?

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment jen

    I agree with the above, however when the wrongdoer repeatedly betrays you and says sorry, yet repeatedly makes the same mistakes and then thinks he has done nothing wrong, it is time to yes forgive, but you need to move on. This kind of behavior is so toxic to the individual being wronged. It is downright evil and abusive. Especially when he is so nice to everyone on the outside and has a totally different affect to the person he is mentally abusing.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Kristi

    My husband won’t confess, won’t admit anything, won’t become transparent (passwords on phones, he won’t open up and share.) won’t take the other woman off of his facebook, hasn’t asked forgiveness, just expects it anyway, won’t commit to working on the marriage. He has been addicted to pornography our whole marriate, then has gambled us into financial ruin, then started drinking too much, still gambles, secret cell phones bought by the other woman (3-4 year relationahip). Says he has not slept with her and is no longer talking to her. He is not interested in a sexual relationship with me, can’t forgive me for telling others. ( I didn’t say anything ot anyone for 15 years, finally all of this and the emotional abuse was tearing me up, I couldn’t hold it in anymore and seeked advice from family and a couple of friends. Of course, “the only reason I did it was to make him look bad.” NOW WHAT DO I DO? Do I stay in this marriage. I have been understanding and forgiving for 17 years,he just hasn’t stopped the behaviour and just keeps getting worse.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment A. Huntley

    Please blog soon about people who have committed terrible offenses and refuse to admit wrong doing, try to repent or even apologize or never attempts to repent or apologize. Trying so hard to forgive, but its difficult.

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