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Seventy Times Seven

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As Christians, if there is one area that we have to constantly revisit, it is on the subject of forgiveness. The following excerpt is taken from the book titled, Transforming Grace (1991, 2008), by Jerry Bridges (1929 to 2016), a well known Christian writer and speaker who served on the staff of The Navigators for more than 60 years before his death in 2016. This specific portion is taken from Chapter 13, “Garments of Grace”:

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. ~Colossians 3:12-14

One day driving back to the office from an appointment, I was grappling with some difficult circumstances in my life and feeling a bit sorry for myself. But as I drove, I tried to focus my mind on some portions of Scripture and reflect on them rather than on my problems. As I did this, I thought of Colossians 3:12-14, the Scripture text at the beginning of this chapter.

I had memorized this passage years ago and had reviewed it and reflected on it many times, but that day I saw the passage in a new way. Always before, when reflecting on the passage, my mind had gone directly to the character traits we are to put on: compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forbearance, and love. I had never paid attention the the apostle Paul’s introductory phrase: “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved.” To me Paul was saying nothing more than, “Since you are Christians, act like Christians.” I saw his emphasis to be solely on Christian duty, the traits of Christ’s character I should seek after.

But that day the Holy Spirit cause my mind to focus on the two words, “dearly loved.” It was as if He said to me. “Jerry, you are feeling sorry for yourself; but the truth is, you are dearly loved by God.” Dearly loved by God. What an incredible thought! But it is true, and that afternoon the Holy Spirit drove home to my heart the wonderful truth with such a force that my self-pity was completely dispelled. I continued on to my office rejoicing in the fact that, despite my difficult circumstances, I was dearly loved by God.

Of course, the main thrust of Paul’s teaching in this passage is that we are to clothe ourselves with Christlike virtues, what I call “garments of grace.” But he grounds his exhortation on the grace of God–on the fact that we are chosen by Him, holy in His sight, and dearly loved by Him. It is difficult, perhaps impossible, for us to show compassion or patience to someone else if we are not sure God is patient with us–or worse, if we don’t’ sense the need for God to be patient with us. So these garments of gracious Christian character can only be put on by those who are consciously experiencing God’s grace in their own lives.

Having experienced God’s grace, we are then called on to extend that grace to others. The evidence of whether we are living by His grace is to be found in the way we treat other people. If we see ourselves as sinners and totally unworthy in ourselves of God’s compassion, patience, and forgiveness, then we will want to be gracious to others.

God’s grace is indeed meant to be a transforming grace. As Paul said in Titus 2:11-12, “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age.” The grace of God brings salvation, not only from the quilt and condemnation of sin, but also from the reign of sin in our lives. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodly character traits, but also to say “Yes” to godly character traits. God’s grace teaches us to clothe ourselves with “garments of grace” (Quote source, “Transforming Grace,” pp. 225-227).

At this point in the chapter, Bridges focuses on five of the eight character traits mentioned in Colossians 3:12-14 that he feels are particularly related to grace: gratitude, contentment, humility, forbearance, and forgiveness (pp. 227-240). Of those five characteristics, here is what Bridges had to say on the last two–forbearance and forgiveness (pp. 234-240):

Forbearance

In his “garments of grace” list in Colossians 3:12-14, Paul puts “forbearance” (“bear with each other”) and “forgiveness” together. These two character traits should certainly be hallmarks of a person living by God’s transforming grace. Forbearance is no longer a common word in most vocabularies. We tend to use the word “patience” in its’ place, as in “please be patient with me.” Forbearance literally means “to put up with” and is translated that way several place in the New Testament.

For example, the Lord Jesus said in Matthew 17:17, “O unbelieving and perverse generation, . . . how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you?” Paul spoke similarly when he wrote to the Corinthians, “I hope you will put up with a little of my foolishness; but you are already doing that” (2 Corinthians 11:1).

So when Paul said to “bear with each other,” he was saying, “put up with one another,” or as we would say, “be patient with one another.” When we use “be patient” in this manner, we are saying to put up with or overlook the faults and thoughtless acts of others. One person is always prompt for appointments, another is habitually late. When they set a lunch date, the prompt person will very likely have to put up with the twenty or so minutes of tardiness from the habitually late person.

But there are two ways we can put up with the faults and thoughtless acts of other people. One way is politely but grudgingly. A person says, “Excuse my lateness,” and we smile and say, “Of course,” while inwardly we are saying, “Why can’t you be on time like I always am?” Such an attitude is born out of pride and is obviously not the way God intends that we put up with or be patient with one another.

The other way is to recognize that God has to constantly put up with our faults and failures. Not only are we faulty and thoughtless in our relationships with one another, more importantly, we are faulty and thoughtless in our relationship with God. We do not honor and reverence Him as we should. We prefer the entertainment of television to intimate fellowship with Him. But God is patient with us because of His grace. And to the extent that we consciously live in His grace, we will be patient with others. In fact, the definition of patience in our common use implies the latter, gracious way of putting up with the faults of others.

We all recognize that grudgingly “putting up with” is not true patience according to our common meaning. True patience holds no grudge, not even a minor, momentary one.

In Ephesians 4:2, Paul urges us to “[bear] with one another in love.” As Peter said in 1 Peter 4:8, “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.” Love not only covers over a multitude of sins but also a multitude of faults in one another. But where do we get such love? John answers this in 1 John 4:19: “We love because he first loved us.”

The object of the verb “love” in 1 John 4:19 is indefinite. John could be saying, “We love God because He first loved us”; or he could be saying, “We love one another because God first loved us.” Perhaps John intended both meanings, although the context seems to indicate the latter. If so, he is saying the basis of our love for one another is God’s love for us. This being true, the extent of our love for each other will be based on our consciousness of and appreciation of God’s love for us. The more we have a heartfelt comprehension of God’s love for us, the more we will be inclined to love others. And since love covers over a multitude of faults, the more we will be inclined to be patient with one another. So patience ultimately grows out of a recognition of God’s grace in our lives. The more we are consciously living by grace, the more we will be patient with one another. Or to say it another way, if we are not patient with each other, we are not living by grace.

Forgiveness

Paul said we are to go beyond being patient with one another; we are also to forgive each other. Forgiveness differs from forbearance in that it has to do with real wrongs committed against us. Forbearance or patience should be our response to unintentional actions due to the faults or carelessness of another. Forgiveness should be our response to the intentional or provocative acts of another, the instances when they attempt to or actually do harm us in some way.

In Colossians 3:13, Paul said, “Forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another.” Paul’s language seems to take for granted that such grievances will occur. As believers, all of us are still far from the Christlikeness we would like to have. So we not only offend our fellow believers unwittingly through our faults and failures, but we also sometimes offend deliberately. We need forgiveness not only from God but from one another. And we need to forgive one another as God forgave us.

Paul said, “Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” We are to forgive because we have been forgiven. As F. F. Bruce said, “The free grace of the Father’s forgiving love is the pattern for his children in their forgiveness of one another.” This thought takes us back to Jesus’ parable of the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18:21-35:

The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”

Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times (seventy times seven in NKJV). 

“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 ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

“At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.

“But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.

“His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’

“But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.

“Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘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 handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

“This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

As we consider the parable, note first that Jesus gave it in response to a specific question from Peter: “How many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” The parable serves to reinforce Jesus’ answer, “not seven times, but seventy-seven times (or seventy times seven–NKJV).”

The servant in the parable owed his master millions of dollars. When the master ordered that he and his family and all he had be sold to repay the debt, the servant stalled for time. He said, “Be patient with me, and I will pay back everything.” The servant should have declared bankruptcy and pleaded for mercy; instead, he pleaded for time. He thought he could wipe out his huge debt, given sufficient time. But he owed an impossible sum. According to David Seamands (1922-2006), the annual taxes at that time from all the Palestinian provinces put together amounted to only $800,000. Yet the servant owned millions of dollars. There was no way he could pay his debt.

This servant illustrates a person who is living by works. He foolishly thought he would work his way out of debt. But the master knew that only grace would suffice to meet the man’s needs, so he freely forgave him and canceled the debt.

Despite experiencing such overwhelming forgiveness, this man refused to forgive a fellow servant who owed him only a few dollars. Instead, he ruthlessly demanded payment. The obvious message of the parable is that, whatever offense anyone has committed against us, it is trifling compared to the vast debt of our sins against God.

It seems that the unmerciful servant’s unforgiving attitude arose out of his lack of understanding of grace. He wanted to repay his debt . . . to pay his own way. In his mind he never declared total bankruptcy. That is why, even after receiving such gracious forgiveness himself, he treated his fellow servant so unmercifully. Had he recognized his own total bankruptcy, and consequently, the necessity for absolute grace on the part of his master, he probably would have behaved differently.

Many Christians behave like the unmerciful servant and for the same reason. Because they have no admitted their own total and permanent spiritual bankruptcy, they do not recognize the infinite extent of God’s grace to them. They still see themselves as basically “good,” and because of that, they expect everyone else to be “good” also, especially in relationship to them. Because they do not recognize their own continued bankruptcy before God, they insist that everyone else pay his own debt.

But the Christian living by grace recognizes his own spiritual bankruptcy. He sees the vast contrast between his sins against God of “several million dollars” and his neighbor’s sins against him of only a “few dollars.” And because of this, he both understands and responds to Paul’s instruction, “Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”

[We must recognize] our own spiritual bankruptcy. This is where we must begin and end if we are to experience the joy of living by God’s transforming grace. So I invite you and urge you to lay aside any remnant of self-goodness you may think your still have. Admit your total spiritual bankruptcy, and drink deeply from the infinite grace of God. And then in deep awareness of what you have received, extend that same spirit of grace to others. (Quote source, “Transforming Grace,” pp. 234-240.)

So then, it is clear how often we should forgive others (all others) . . . .

Seventy . . .

Times . . .

Seven . . . .

YouTube Video: “Forgiveness” by Matthew West:

Photo #1 credit here
Photo #2 credit here

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