The Standards of Grace

Matthew 18:21-35

October 31, 1999 | Brian Bill

I heard about a man who really loved dogs.  He devoted his life to them – he read about them, studied them, and even gave talks about them to other dog lovers.  One day he decided to pour a new sidewalk in front of his house.  His neighbor watched from his window as he smoothed out the last square foot of cement.  

Just then, a large dog appeared and walked through the fresh cement, leaving paw prints behind.  The man muttered something under his breath and smoothed out the damage.

He then went inside to get some twine so he could put up a fence around the sidewalk.  But, when he got back outside, he discovered some more dog tracks in his fresh cement.  He smoothed out the cement and put up the fence.

He then went into the house.  Five minutes later he looked outside and saw some more paw prints.  He was really mad now.  He got out his trowel and smoothed the cement one more time.  As he got back to his porch, the dog reappeared and sat right in the middle of the sidewalk

He went inside, grabbed his gun and shot the dog dead.  The neighbor rushed over and said, “Why did you do that?  I thought you loved dogs.”  The man thought for a minute and said, “I do, I do like dogs.  But that’s in the abstract.  I hate dogs in the concrete.”

That’s how many of us feel about forgiveness.  We love to hear about forgiveness in the abstract, but when it hits close to home, we hate it in the concrete.  

Relational viruses attack every friendship.  Tensions arise.  Wrongs are done.  Lies are told.  Trust is broken.  Since we’re imperfect people, we’re bound to have trouble with forgiveness.  I’m convinced that relationships are built not on a standard of perfection, but on our ability to ask for forgiveness, and upon our willingness to extend forgiveness.  In other words, grace must impact both our friendships and our forgiveness.

In every relationship you have, you will constantly be called on to forgive and to ask for forgiveness

If you and I want to have relationships that last for the long haul, then we must be willing to extend forgiveness to others.  Here’s another way to say it:  In every relationship you have, you will constantly be called on to forgive and to ask for forgiveness.

Forgiveness is costly — it’s not easy to ask for forgiveness and it’s certainly not easy to extend forgiveness to those who’ve wronged us.  Proverbs 18:19 says that, “An offended brother is more unyielding than a fortified city, and disputes are like the barred gates of a citadel.”

Forgiveness is the virtue we most enjoy and least employ.  There are at least two reasons why we struggle with forgiveness:

  • Forgiveness is not natural.  That’s why it’s so hard to do.
  • Forgiveness is not fair.  Our sense of justice wants to be vindicated.

Unlimited Forgiveness

Of all the people in the Bible, Peter stands out as the most mathematical of the disciples.  He was a stickler for detail, always trying to pin down the precise meaning of everything Jesus said.  Do you remember when Jesus engineered a miraculous catch of fish?  It was Peter who sat down and counted each squirming one to find out that they caught 153.  If you were to take your Bible and count the number of times that Peter messed up, you’d discover that he needed forgiveness on at least 7 different occasions. 

Being a numbers-guy, one day Peter came up to Jesus and asked him a question in Matthew 18:21, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me?  Up to seven times?   I find his question a bit amusing.  Here’s Peter, the one who needed personal forgiveness on at least 7 different occasions himself, being concerned with how many times he had to forgive someone else.  He was trying to discover a mathematical formula for grace.

When you think about it, we all have some barriers that keep us from giving the gift of forgiveness to others.  We have a threshold that we don’t want to cross, a limit we won’t go beyond.  I can think of at least three barriers of an unforgiving heart:

  • Revenge – “I’m going to get even!”
  • Resentment – “I’m going to stay angry!”
  • Remembering – “I’ll never forget!”

We’ve all asked this question at one time or another.  “How many times do I have to forgive this guy?  I’m getting tired of it.  Why does he keep hurting me like he does?”  Peter may have been thinking of a time when somebody wronged him and he had extended forgiveness.  But, this same person did something to hurt him the next day.  Again, Peter forgave him.  A couple days later, his friend lied to him.  This time, Peter reluctantly forgave him but now he’s ticked off.  Peter wanted Jesus to help him set some forgiveness limits.  Peter wanted to know when it’s OK to say, “That’s it.  You’ve messed up one too many times!”

I wonder if Peter here is thinking of something his literal brother Andrew did.  Maybe Andy didn’t put the fishing nets away, or maybe he was always borrowing Peter’s Old Navy jacket, or maybe he borrowed some shekels for some steak tacos at LaRancherita and never paid him back.

Whatever the case, before Jesus could answer, Peter responded to his own question by suggesting that seven times would be a good limit.  That’s not a bad answer.  The rabbis back then taught that you had to forgive someone three times and then you could retaliate.  The fourth time you could do whatever you liked.  In fact, they mistakenly taught that God only forgives three times.  Peter doubled that and added one for good measure.  I think he thought his answer would impress Jesus.

To be honest, forgiving someone seven times is commendable.  Most of us get frustrated if we have to forgive someone twice.  By human standards, what Peter said was admirable and perhaps even extravagant.  But Peter wanted a number, a limit, a place where he could finally say, “That’s it — you’re not getting away with this any longer.  Our friendship is now over.”

As Jesus often does, his answer to Peter was unexpected and disarming.  Take a look at verse 22: “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven times.”  The crash you hear is Peter hitting the ground in a dead faint.  He couldn’t believe his ears!  Seventy times seven?  He got out his pocket calculator [BRING CALCULATOR] and punched in the numbers.  That’s 490 times!  

Jesus isn’t suggesting that we count the number of times we forgive someone — 298, 299, 300 — only 190 to go!  Not at all.  A while ago, I asked my wife Beth to forgive me for something I did.  Before she could answer I reminded her that Jesus wanted her to forgive me 490 times.  She laughed and said, “Buddy, you’re already over 500 — but I’ll forgive you anyway!” 

Seventy times seven means there is no limit to the number of times we are to forgive someone.  Actually, if you were to count, by the time you reach 490, you would be in the habit of continual and unlimited forgiveness.  That’s precisely the point Jesus is making — you don’t keep score when it comes to forgiveness.   Like grace, forgiveness has about it a maddening quality because it is undeserved, unmerited, and unfair.

When We Need Forgiveness

Since the truth of forgiveness without limits is hard for us to grasp, Jesus told a story to help illustrate what He meant.  In the first half of the story, Jesus deals with those of us who need forgiveness.  Here he gives us some practical help for those times when we’ve wronged someone and stand in need of their forgiveness.

In the second half, He targets those of us who need to forgive others.  We’ll find some practical help for those times when someone has wronged us — when they’re in need of our forgiveness.

Let’s start with verses 23-24: “Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants.  As he began the settlement, a man who owed him 10,000 talents was brought to him.” 

Here’s the picture.  The king in the land decided to call in all his debts.  He sent out his collection agents and they came back with a man who owed the king a considerable chunk of change.  His CPA’s figure that he owed the equivalent of about $25 million – that’s like the entire yearly income for the whole kingdom.  We’re not sure exactly how he ran up this kind of debt but it’s clear that he would never be able to repay the king.  

Since he couldn’t pay the debt, verse 25 says that, “the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.”  The king knew he could never recoup all his losses — he just wanted to get back whatever he could.

At this point, the servant did what most of us would have done.  He fell on his knees and said, “Be patient with me, and I will pay back everything.”  Even though he could never pay it back, he’s now desperate.  He can’t stand the thought of his family being sold because of the debt he ran up.

The king was moved.  The Bible says that he was filled with compassion.  And, he does something the man doesn’t even ask for.  The king not only releases him, he also forgives the debt.  This is at great personal cost to the king.  By assuming the debt, he allowed it to go unpaid and thus impoverished his treasury.  He wipes the slate clean, erases the books, and cancels the debt.  Now the man owes him nothing.  

Friend, this is exactly what forgiveness is all about.  To forgive is to cancel the debt.  When we’ve wronged someone, and they choose to forgive us, they are in essence saying, “I cancel the debt.  The slate has been wiped clean.  You don’t owe me anything — I release you from ever having to pay me back.”

I want you to notice that the servant did not deserve this forgiveness; it was purely an act of grace and mercy on the part of the king.  I was in this situation several years ago with a friend of mine.  I had done something that really hurt him.  When I realized what I had done, I asked him if we could go out for breakfast and talk.  As we sat across from each other, I owned up for what I had done and asked him for forgiveness.  I didn’t feel like I deserved to be forgiven because I had really wronged him.  As tears were streaming down my face, he looked at me, smiled and said, “Brian, I completely forgive you.”

I cried some more when I heard those words.  He had given me a gift by canceling the debt I owed him.  I suspect that some of you are living right here tonight.  Perhaps you’ve done something to someone but you’ve never asked for forgiveness.  Maybe you know that you’ve offended your friend but you haven’t owned up for it.  

Here are three action steps if you’re in need of forgiveness.

1 – Face Your Friend

The first step you need to take if you’re the guilty party is to meet with your friend or foe face-to-face.  In Matthew 5:24, Jesus put it this way, “If your brother has something against you…go and be reconciled to your brother.”  Is there someone you need to “go” to this week?  Anyone you need to call?  Do you need to stop over to someone’s dorm, house or apartment?

2 – Own The Wrong

The second step, after you’ve faced your friend, is to own the wrong that has been done.  There’s a phrase I use when I play basketball that I think is applicable here.  When I lose the ball out of bounds or miss a shot, I often point to myself and say, “My bad.”  It’s my way of saying that it’s no one else’s fault.  I messed up.  Friends, when we mess up in our relationships, Jesus wants us to own the wrong, to say, “My bad.”  It’s not enough to just acknowledge a mistake — we need to own it.

3 – Ask For Release

After facing your friend and owning the wrong, the next step is to ask for release.  I suggest that you actually say the words, “Please forgive me.”  If your friend says something like, “It’s no big deal, don’t worry about it,” you might want to say, “I appreciate that, but I need to have your forgiveness.  Do you forgive me?”  It’s really important to be released from the debt.

I was talking to a friend about forgiveness a while ago and asked him to write down some things that God had taught him.  He had just attended a conference, and was challenged to restore a couple of his relationships.  This is what he wrote:

On the way home in the bus we were sharing our experiences and I got up and shared mine.  When I was finished I started crying.  I don’t why.  I don’t cry.  It’s not that I think I’m too tough, I just don’t feel anything.  Well, the Holy Spirit grabbed me and started to bring to mind all of the relationships in my life that need healing — people I needed to forgive or ask forgiveness from.

When I got home, I went out with my wife.  I shared my experience with her and asked her forgiveness.  And cried some more.  It was the weirdest thing.  My veins of ice melted away.  That night I talked to my son and asked him for forgiveness for specific events.  Then I asked him if I forgot anything.  We talked and he graciously forgave me.  Our relationship was healed immediately.

When my buddy was in need of forgiveness, he faced his friend, he owned the wrong, and he asked for release.  Who do you need to face this week?  What wrong do you need to own?  Do you have the courage to ask for release from the debt?

When We Need To Forgive Others

Now, let’s talk about those times when we need to forgive others.  Let’s go back to the story.  As this humbled man walked away with this wonderful gift of forgiveness, he ran into a friend who owed him some money.  It wasn’t a lot of money.  In comparison to the $25 million that he had owed the king, it was about 10 bucks.  Maybe his friend had borrowed the money to take his family out to McDonald’s and hadn’t paid it back yet. Instead of canceling his friend’s debt, verse 28 says that he grabbed him and began to choke him saying, “Pay back what you owe me!”

That reminds me of something I read from a biography of poet Heinrich Heine:  “My nature is the most peaceful in the world.  All I ask is a simple cottage, a decent bed, good food, some flowers in front of my window, and a few trees beside my door.  Then, if God wanted to make me completely happy, he would let me enjoy the spectacle of six or seven of my enemies dangling from those trees.  I would forgive them all the wrongs they have done me – from the bottom of my heart, for we must forgive our enemies.  But not until they are hanged.”

We’re a lot like that, aren’t we?  When someone does something wrong, we want to see them punished, we want them to pay for the damage they’ve done to us.  

Jesus continues by telling us that the forgiven man’s friend fell to his knees and asked for some time.  In fact, his plea was almost identical to the other man’s when he was before the king: “Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.”  But, there’s one big difference.  Instead of forgiving the wrong out of gratitude for the forgiveness he had received, verse 30 says, “he went off and had the man thrown in prison until he could pay the debt.”

Let me pause here in the story to make an application.  We’re a lot like this man when we don’t forgive others.  We enjoy putting people in prison if they’ve wronged us.  We want them to suffer, to hurt as bad as they hurt us.  

We put people in prison in various ways:

  • We might use the silent treatment 
  • We may simply avoid them
  • Or, we may launch a volley of verbal assaults

Are you holding someone hostage right now?  Are you trying to make them feel miserable?  Are you determined to punish a friend or family member for something that he or she said to you?  Got a few people hanging in your backyard?  If that describes you, let’s pick up the story again to see what happens.

This man made a critical mistake.  He threw his friend in prison in broad daylight.  Someone saw it happen and reported it to the king.  Word got around and soon everyone was talking about it.  It wasn’t the fact that the man would not forgive his friend that shocked them.  It was that he was so unforgiving after having found such mercy and grace himself.

The king is really ticked off now.  He sends his soldiers to bring the man before him.  Notice verses 32-34: “You wicked servant.  I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to.  Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?  In anger his master turned him over to the torturers until he paid back all he owed.”  This guy had a $25 million debt forgiven.  Shouldn’t he have done the same for someone who owed him 10 lousy bucks?

Hidden Torturers

Let me say this strongly.  What happened to that man will happen to each one of us unless we learn to forgive and forgive and forgive.  The torturers will come and take us away if we don’t extend forgiveness to those who have wronged us.  What torturers, you ask?  The hidden torturers of anger and bitterness that eat your insides out.  The torturers of frustration and malice that give you ulcers, high blood pressure, migraine headaches, and lower back pain.  The hidden torturers that make you lie awake at night stewing over every wrong that someone has done to you.  The torturers of an unforgiving heart who stalk you day and night, who never leave your side, who suck every bit of joy out of your life.  Why?  Because you will not forgive from your heart.

Here’s the rub.  While we often try to punish and imprison those who hurt us, the reverse actually happens.  When we don’t forgive we end up being tortured.  Do you know where the worst prison is in the entire world?  It’s the prison of an unforgiving heart.  If we nurture feelings of bitterness we are little better than inmates of an internal concentration camp.  

Many of us lock ourselves in a lonely isolation chamber, where we are tortured incessantly, walled in by bitterness and our own refusal to forgive.  When we chose to not forgive, we are imprisoned in the past and locked out of all potential for change.  Have you ever noticed that some of the most miserable people in the world are those who are unwilling to forgive others?  

Did you hear about the two men who were in a nursing home and had been quarreling for years?  One of the guys thought he was on his deathbed so he called his foe over to his bed and said, “John, I forgive you for what you have said and done against me over the years, and I want you to do the same for me.”

The other man, with tears in his eyes, agreed that he too would like to forgive and be forgiven.  Then the man in the bed said, “But if I get better, this doesn’t count!”

Friends, don’t put off forgiveness.   Don’t allow the root of bitterness to grow into a tree of hatred and resentment.  Hebrews 12:15 challenges us to not miss the grace of God so that “…no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.”  

If we don’t forgive, we remain bound to the people we cannot forgive, held in their vise grip.  And yet, many of us persist in demanding that others act in a way that we ourselves can never achieve.  Lewis Smedes has said, “When I genuinely forgive, I set a prisoner free and then discover that the prisoner I set free was me.”

The Bible says that when we wrong someone, we are to go and meet face-to-face.  Not surprisingly, the Bible is also clear on what to do when someone has wronged us.  Earlier in this same chapter, Jesus put it this way in verse 15: “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you.  If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.”   If someone has wronged you, you have the responsibility to go to him or her and work it out.  

When You Need to Forgive:

  • Meet face-to-face
  • Point out the wrong
  • Release him

You’re covered either way.  If you’ve messed up and hurt someone, Jesus says to you, “Go, and face your friend, own the wrong, and ask for release.”  If someone has wronged you, instead of making him or her pay, or throwing him or her in prison, Jesus says to you, “Go and face your friend, point out the wrong, and then release him or her from it.”

To forgive is a process of giving up.  That’s exactly what the word forgiveness means — it means, “to give” to someone by releasing them from debt.  It also carries the idea of “releasing, and freeing yourself.”  It’s like saying, “You did something that really hurt me.  But I care enough about you to meet face-to-face.  And now, I release you from all obligation to ever pay me back.  I forgive you completely.”  When we cancel the debt, we give up demands for perfect behavior, perfect justice, and perfect retribution.  When we extend forgiveness, we begin to experience the truth that all of us are fallible humans in need of being forgiven – and in desperate need of grace.

I really like this one sentence definition that I heard recently: Forgiveness is like meeting someone for the first time.  That means there’s no baggage.  No history.  No grudges.  No hidden resentments.  To forgive means to start over by giving people a fresh start.  In short, to forgive is to give grace to another – and freedom to ourselves.  

When you and I forgive someone, we slice away the wrong from the person who did it.  We disengage the person from his hurtful act.  We can then think of him not as the person who hurt us, but a person who needs us.  We recreate our past by recreating the person whose wrong made our past painful.

A Debt We Cannot Pay

Friends, we’re a lot like the unforgiving man in the story that Jesus told.  We stand before a holy God with our sins piled up higher than a mountain. Our sins are like a $25 million debt that we can never repay.  And yet, out of compassion for our moral predicament, and motivated by His grace, God sent His Son Jesus to pay off our spiritual debts.

Colossians 3:13 says:  “Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you have against one another.  Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”   We can tolerate those who irritate us, and forgive our friends and family members when they wrong us, precisely because Jesus has forgiven us.  Since those of us who have received Christ as our Savior have been forgiven for so much, then, out of gratitude, we should practice unlimited forgiveness in all our relationships.

3 Reasons to Forgive

  • Because we’ve received grace and forgiveness
  • An unforgiving spirit inflicts torment
  • Forgiveness frees people – including ourselves


Where are you today?  Do you need to ask someone for forgiveness?  Have you wronged a friend or family member?  If so, determine to face your friend, own the wrong, and ask for release.

Do you need to give someone the gift of forgiveness?  Are you tired of living with the venom of an unforgiving spirit?  Are your grudges structuring your total outlook on life?  If so, cancel that debt today.  Restore that friendship by being a grace-giver.

Do you need Divine forgiveness?  Have you ever come face to face with God, owned your sin, and then asked Him for release?  You need to do it, if you haven’t already done so — forgiveness is our deepest need and God’s highest achievement.  Once you experience God’s forgiveness, you’ll be better equipped to forgive others.

C.S. Lewis has said, “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.”

Ernest Hemingway loved to write about the country of Spain.  In his short story, The Capital of the World, Hemingway tells of a father and son who had stopped talking to one another.  Things got so bad that the son left home.  After several years, the father wanted to mend the relationship and so he looked everywhere for his son.  When he came to the capital city of Madrid, he decided to go to the newspaper office and take out a big ad in the newspaper that said this: “Paco, please meet me at 12 noon tomorrow in front of the newspaper office — all is forgiven.  I love you.  Your Father.”

The next day at 12 noon, there were 800 men named Paco standing in front of the building!  I suspect we have some Paco’s here this morning in need of forgiveness.  We also have some who need to give the gift of forgiveness to others.  

Forgiveness Inventory

Please bow your head as we conclude.  Let’s take some time to do a Forgiveness Inventory.  Don’t leave without making a decision that can radically change your life — and the quality of your friendships.

  • Do you need to ask forgiveness from someone?  Can you think of a person right now?  Is there someone you’ve wronged and you haven’t owned up for it?   Are you ready to make the decision to go to that person and make things right?  If so, would you please raise your hand?
  • Do you need to extend forgiveness to someone?  Have you been nursing a grudge?  Are you giving someone the silent treatment?  Are you ready to forgive the debt?  If so, would you please raise your hand?
  • Do you need to admit your sins to a holy God and receive His forgiveness?  If you haven’t done so, now is the right time.  The cost of our sins is more than we can pay.  The gift of our God is more than we can imagine.  If you are ready to receive the gift of divine forgiveness, would you raise your hand?

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?