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When It’s Wrong to Forgive Someone

by Stephen Davey Scripture Reference: Luke 17:1–10

Following the Lord Jesus means directing our lives away from ourselves and toward God and others. Humility, integrity, forgiveness, faithfulness, and selfless service should characterize our lives.


By the time we reach Luke 17, Jesus is about three years into His public ministry. He has begun preparing the disciples in very realistic terms for what it will mean to serve Him in a hostile world.

I want to summarize His teaching through this next passage of Scripture by boiling down the Lord’s training into three reminders. The first reminder is simply this: Be careful! Listen to the Lord’s words in verse 1:

And he said to his disciples, “Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come!”

Let me tell you, the world is no friend to your desire to live a godly life. Temptation and sin are inevitable. Every day you get out of bed you are going to face a test of integrity. None of us is going to be free from sin and temptation until we see Jesus.

The Lord’s concern here is that His disciples do not become the source of temptation for others. Jesus says, “Woe to the one through whom [temptations] come!” The word for “temptation” is the Greek word skandalon, which gives us the word scandal. It literally means to “trap.” The Lord is warning us here not to live in such a way that we trip up someone else.

He continues in verse 2:

“It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin.”

That is quite a warning, isn’t it? You cause some child—or some child in the faith—to be spiritually harmed because of your temptation to sin, and it would be better for you to be tied to a large millstone and cast into the sea. It would be better to drown than cause a little one to enter a life of sin.[1]

This same warning from the Lord is recorded in Matthew 18 and Mark 9. More specifically it refers to young or new believers.[2] So, pay attention to how you are living. Be careful, so that your life is worth imitating as you walk with Christ.

Now the second reminder is to be forgiving. Jesus says in verse 3, “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.” Our first duty to sinning believers is to rebuke them, or warn them—with the goal of repentance and restoration to fellowship.

If they repent, it is our duty to forgive them. And this forgiveness is to be given even if someone sins repeatedly and each time repents. Jesus says in verse 4 that even “if he sins against you seven times in the day . . . you must forgive him.”

“Seven times” is a reference to forgiving without limits. But notice the qualifying statement: we are to forgive every time there is genuine repentance.

What about someone who doesn’t repent? Notice here that forgiveness depends on repentance. Verse 3 again: “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.”

I hear preachers today praying that God will forgive America. God is not going to forgive America, because America is not repenting. In fact, America is not even asking for forgiveness.

What is often overlooked is the road map. Repentance leads someone to ask for forgiveness, and that leads to forgiveness and fellowship. Forgiveness is a two-way street that leads to fellowship. You cannot have fellowship with someone who refuses to repent of his or her sin against you.

Maybe you are going through that struggle right now. Somebody has hurt you, maligned you, abused you; you might be the victim of someone’s crime. So how do you forgive that person if there is no repentance? Well, in a very real way, you can’t. You might not even be able to talk to the person because he or she has moved away.

But listen, you can talk to the Lord about the person. You can imitate Jesus on the cross who said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Jesus didn’t say that to them; He said it in prayer to His Father. Forgiveness was a transaction in prayer between Jesus and His heavenly Father.

So also, for you today, forgiveness might be between you and the Lord. That other person may never ask for your forgiveness. The individual might even be dead today and long gone. But you can go to the Lord and hand that person over to Him and say, “Lord, I forgive him the way you forgave those Roman soldiers and religious leaders who crucified You. I want a forgiving spirit before You, Lord; in fact, I am going to hand that person over to You and stop reliving his sin against me. Lord, I am going to trust Your will for my life, like Joseph who was sold to the Egyptians according to Your will. I am going to trust Your will; I am going to give You my resentment against this person’s actions. I am putting it in Your hands from now on.”

Beloved, you might not be able to enjoy renewed fellowship with someone who has sinned against you unless that person repents, but you can enjoy renewed fellowship with the Lord.

Someone once said that we don’t get to choose our crosses, but we get to choose our responses. A forgiving spirit before the Lord is one of those responses we should choose.

And if that person comes to you and apologizes, Jesus says, “Even if it’s seven times, forgive them.”

Well, no wonder the disciples followed up this teaching by saying to the Lord in verse 5, “Increase our faith!” They are going to need more faith to trust Him and forgive like that.

Now the Lord moves on to give them the reminder to serve faithfully:

“Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded?” (verses 7-9)

Jesus is describing the normal social structure in His day. The household servant did not expect to get any thanks for working hard all day and then into the night.

But the Lord applies this illustration to His disciples in verse 10:

“So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’”

You know what allows you to live carefully so that others watching you will not be tempted to sin? Do you know what gives you a forgiving spirit? Do you know what keeps you humbly serving the Lord? Here it is: the attitude that you are an unworthy servant.

God in His grace chose us; by His grace He has even chosen to use us. And we know our hearts, don’t we? We know we are unworthy in and of ourselves.

But here is the amazing thing—the Lord will honor us one day. He will reward us for every little act of service. Beloved, I believe we will be surprised at how joyfully and eagerly the Lord rewards us at the coming judgment seat of Christ, when believers are given crowns and jewels that represent even our smallest efforts (2 Corinthians 5:10).

But here is what we are going to do with our rewards. The Bible tells us we will cast them at His feet, as if to admit, “Lord, whatever good we did, we just did out duty through Your power.” And as we cast our crowns at His feet, the Bible says we will be saying to the Lord, “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power” (Revelation 4:10-11).

So, between today and that day of reward, let us serve Him humbly; let us live for Him carefully, and let us have a spirit of forgiveness as disciples of Jesus!

[1] Leon Morris, Luke: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (InterVarsity, 1988), 279.

[2] See Matthew 18:6; Mark 9:42.

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