When we come into community, we are brought together with quirky people who are different from us and who are sinners. Being one in Christ is a powerful reality, but it doesn’t obliterate the distinctive personalities and blunders people have.
Because of this, one of the most important words we ever encounter in the Bible is this: forgiveness.
Jesus offers one of the most comprehensive statements on forgiveness ever spoken in Luke 17:3-4:
If a brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.
Forgiveness demands a recognition of sin and repentance of sin. Jesus does not say here that sin should not be named or addressed. Naming and dealing with sin is the precursor to forgiveness.
Yet Jesus also says that forgiveness must be complete, no matter how often sin is dealt out. The number seven in the Bible is a number reflecting completeness. This is seen most readily in the seven-day creation of the entire world. Seven is a number that reflects comprehensive and complete work.
So, when Jesus addresses the issue of forgiveness, He says that we must forgive even if someone fills the day with sin toward us. Every time, we must forgive. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is recorded as saying that we must not only forgiven “seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:22). This helps us get the totality of forgiveness, in case the number seven didn’t hammer it home clearly enough.
In response to Jesus’ challenging words, the Apostles can only offer one response: “Increase our faith!” (Luke 17:5).
I don’t think it’s too hard to figure out why they said that.
Have you ever been wronged by someone? What did it feel like? Do you remember the warmth of anger such a wrong brought along the back of your neck and forehead? You probably wanted to bring that wrong to the other person’s attention. You probably had a desire to make them see their wrong.
Jesus says that you should. You should ‘rebuke’ them; that is, you should bring to their attention the reality of the wrong. Why? Because a wrong is a wrong. It needs to be made right. (I’ll talk about what dealing with sin from another practically looks like in a post later this week.)
How is it made right? It is made right by their repentance and one other thing: our complete forgiveness. We must notice Jesus’ emphatic call toward total and comprehensive forgiveness of the other.
The wrongdoer’s repentance means recognizing their wrong, humbling themselves, asking forgiveness, and committing to a change of behavior.
Our forgiveness means openly hearing their repentance, and then choosing to restore relationship with that person in full recognition that they might do it again. They might do it six more times in that day, according to Jesus. But we still must forgive completely.
So, we say with the apostles, “Increase our faith!” We say this because, Lord, You know we need great faith in You to be able to endlessly forgive in a world full of people who wrong us. Lord, You know that the community You brought to life contains quirky, sinful people . . . just like me.