A Lesson on Forgiveness
by John Murray


“Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witness every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican” Matthew 18:15-17

The main lesson of this passage is that we should forgive those who trespass against us, and the consideration which enforces this duty is that we must exemplify in our own relations to fellow-believers the grace and compassion which the heavenly Father has exhibited to us in the forgiveness of the sins we have committed against him. If the heavenly Father has remitted the load of our debt and has forgiven the insults which we have offered to his glorious Majesty, how ungrateful and vile are we that we should be merciless towards those who have trespassed against us For, after all, there is scarcely any comparison between the offense of our sin against God and the offense of a brother’s trespass against us. The difference is like the difference there is between God who is of incomparable greatness and holiness and us who are but puny sinful creatures. This is the point of the parable in verses 23-34.

The sum owed by the servant to the King in the parable, ten thousand talents, would amount to millions of dollars in U.S. currency. The amount owed to this same servant by the fellowservant would be about twelve dollars. The king forgave the huge debt but the servant forgiven would show no mercy to his fellowservant in remitting what was, comparatively, a negligible amount. How vile and mean the servant appears! But this only illustrates the unspeakable meanness we manifest when we are hard, bitter, resentful, and unforgiving in reference to those who sin against us.

It is mockery for us to claim to expect divine forgiveness if we do not know how to show mercy and grace to our brethren. That is the sting of verse 35, “So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if you from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses.”

This question of our forgiving others needs to be guarded against misunderstanding and misapplication. The sin in view when we forgive a brother is the sin committed against us and that alone (see v. 21 and Luke 17:4). Jesus is not dealing here with the remission of sin committed against God. Of course sins committed against us are also sins committed against God, and they are sins against us because they are, first of all, sins against God. But it is not our prerogative to forgive the sin against God even in those sins which are committed against us. In terms of this passage all that we are concerned with, and all that comes within our prerogative, is the sin against us. They are, for example, the sins directed against our persons by way of injury, or insult, or slander. It is the ready forgiveness of such sin that Jesus is pressing home upon us.

It needs to be noted, however, that the readiness to forgive is not the only duty that falls to us when a brother sins against us. It is true that when a brother sins against us he ought with speed to come to us in confession and sorrow. But if he does not do this we ought to go to him to reprove him—“go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone” (v. 15). We must do our utmost to bring him to the right state of mind, and that means to repentance, so that we shall be in the position to forgive him and enter again upon relations of peace and harmony.

It is here that we often fail to appreciate what is implied in our forgiveness of others. Forgiveness is not overlooking a transgression, it is not simply to be of a forgiving spirit; it is not even the readiness to forgive. Forgiveness is a definite act performed by us on the fulfillment of certain conditions: “If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him” (Luke 17:3). Forgiveness is something actively administered on the repentance of the person who is to be forgiven. We greatly impoverish ourselves and impair the relations that we should sustain to our brethren when we fail to appreciate what is involved in forgiveness. Where would we be in relation to God if God were simply ready to forgive but never actually gave us the sentence of remission and absolution!

This applies in every case of true forgiveness. That is the force of Jesus’ reply to Peter’s question (vv. 21,22). Our forgiveness of others is to be without limit. Admittedly it is difficult for us to forgive repeated injuries and insults on the part of the same person. But there must be no end to our long-suffering. Our case before God would be holes if there were a limit to the forgiveness he bestows upon us as sinners and our conduct in dealing with our fellow-men must be patterned after God’s dealing with us. “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” (Matt. 6:12).

But what if the brother who trespasses against us turns a deaf ear to our entreaties? It is with this that Jesus deals in verses 16 and 17. Our Lord prescribes well-defined procedure in such an event.

How careful the Lord requires us to be to insure to the utmost that the situation should be rectified privately. We are, first of all, to reprove the brother in the strictest privacy. If this is not successful, then we are to take one or two more. There is still a good deal of privacy in this step and, if this assistance from one or two more induces the brother to repent, no further step is necessary. The matter ends with our forgiveness. Only when this semiprivate dealing is of no avail may we bring the matter to the church of God. Only then may we bring it into the open. But to the church of God it must be brought if neither of the other steps is successful. This resort to the church of God shows particularly two things: (1) The care that should be exercised to heal breaches among brethren; (2) The place accorded to the church of God in the promotion of integrity and harmony within the body of Christ.

There is no further step in the process. If the brother is still impenitent, then the offended brother is to regard the offender as a heathen and publican, that is to say, the offender is not to be esteemed or treated as a member of the body of Christ. The severity of this judgment is indicated by the fact that it bears the sanction and seal of God himself: “Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven” (v. 18). The mind of God in heaven is not different from that prescribed in the written Word. If the Word of God has been followed then we may be assured that God registers with approval in heaven that which we do upon earth. In a word, the will of God as revealed in his Word is the same as the will of God in heaven. The decisions of the church on earth, when consonant with the Word of God, bear the authority and seal of God and we dare not plead as our comfort that such decisions are merely those of men. If they follow the prescriptions of Scripture then they are the judgments of God in heaven.


John Murray was a graduate of the University of Glasgow (1923) and of Princeton Theological Seminary (1927), and he studied at the University of Edinburgh during 1928 and 1929. In 1929-1930 he served on the faculty of the Princeton Theological Seminary. After that he taught at the Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia where he served as Professor of Systematic Theology.

He was a frequent contributor to theological journals and is the author of Christian Baptism (1952), Divorce (1953), Redemption Accomplished and Applied (1955), Principles of Conduct (1957), The Imputation of Adam's Sin (1960), Calvin on the Scriptures and Divine Sovereignty (1960), and The Epistle to the Romans (1968).

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